What a desperate shame that Dylan Hartley's red card should be the immediate talking point from a cracking Premiership final of seven tries including four to the champions, Leicester Tigers, who won their 10th league title overall after two years of near misses in this end-of-season showpiece.
Hartley will face a disciplinary hearing in the next few days with the certainty that if he is found guilty of calling the referee Wayne Barnes a "fucking cheat" as alleged by the official in a tempestuous period of warnings, mishaps and misunderstanding just before half-time, he will receive a ban easily long enough to remove the Northampton captain and England hooker from his planned tour with the British & Irish Lions.
The party leaves for Hong Kong tomorrow for Saturday's first match against the Barbarians and want all their players with them in time for the second fixture, against the Western Force in Perth, on Wednesday 5 June. A similar offence cost Italy's Sergio Parisse a ban of 30 days plus 10 suspended, later reduced on appeal, after a club match in March. But Hartley has a much longer rap sheet than Parisse.
Last night Northampton appeared ready to mount a defence that Hartley was in fact shooting his foul mouth off to an opponent, coincidentally another Lions squad member Tom Youngs, the Leicester hooker. Whether that argument runs further than the sad 40 metres or so the 27-year-old Hartley had to trudge from the field in Northampton's first Premiership final remains to be seen.
The match threw up some fine attacking by Northampton's full-back Ben Foden, not least as his team played the second half with 14 men, and a stand-out scrummaging performance by the Tigers, including their second-choice loosehead prop Logo Mulipola. But there were also renewed issues over behaviour of players, coaches and officials. All those in the crowd who bought the Ref!Link equipment were able to hear Barnes repeat what he saw as Hartley's four-letter offence; ditto the ESPN television audience.
There was also the silly sight of Leicester's coaches Richard Cockerill and Matt O'Connor running down the steps near the Twickenham tunnel to berate the No 4 official for Barnes not calling on the video referee to review a tackle by Courtney Lawes on Leicester's captain Toby Flood. In common with his Northampton counterpart Hartley, Flood did not complete the first half due to the bang on the head he received as he landed.
We also heard Barnes admonish Northampton's Steve Myler for kicking out on the full just before half-time – probably an honest cock-up by the fly-half but it led to the scrum from which Hartley saw red, a few minutes after being warned for his conduct. Cockerill said: "I didn't ask anyone to hit anyone late or swear at the referee. How Northampton behave is up to them. The reason we do well against them is we treat them with a huge amount of respect."
Leicester and Northampton came into the match as the Premiership's top two try scoring teams and there was a rousing ambition to test the other's defences. No grim, kick-at-all-costs east Midlands derby, this.
Hartley was just one of seven Lions on parade – the other six were in Leicester's starting line-up, and one of them, Ben Youngs (Tom's scrum-half brother) attacked the short side of a scrum to set up the first try, after Flood's penalty opener. Niki Goneva took an inside pass off Flood to break the line, Flood probed and Niall Morris went over. The dithering Saints defence was complicit and that theme continued throughout, from both teams. Manu Tuilagi was pinged for not releasing, Lee Dickson tapped for Northampton and Myler scored. By the interval, Leicester led 16-5 with Flood's replacement, George Ford, kicking two penalties.
Back and fourth in the third quarter, Myler and James Wilson made a try for Foden then Ben Youngs sent Graham Kitchener galumphing through a gap and it was 21-10. Ford, in his last Tigers appearance before joining Bath, collected a third penalty when Anthony Allen was tackled off the ball.
Dickson scooped a pass off the deck to finish off a run by Luther Burrell – Myler converted - before Tuilagi, in the 67th minute, broke Tom Wood's tackle and ran into the same south-east corner where he enjoyed his pre-Christmas glory against the All Blacks. Unfortunately for Foden he was hobbling and out of position; epitomising Northampton's effort to win the league for the first time. Goneva finished them off, running in a nonchalant one-handed pass by Steve Mafi before Ford's late penalty for Leicester's last hurrah.
Leicester Tigers Tait; Morris, Tuilagi, Allen, Goneva (Smith, 74); Flood (capt; Ford, 23), B Youngs (Harrison, 74); Mulipola (Balmain, 74), T Youngs (Hawkins, 67), Cole (Castrogiovanni, 67), Kitchener (Slater, 55), Parling, Croft, Salvi, Crane (Mafi, 72).
Northampton Saints Foden (T Pisi, 67); K Pisi, Wilson, Burrell, Elliott (Haywood, 40); Myler (Lamb, 67), Dickson (Roberts, 67); Tonga'uiha (Waller, 55), Hartley (capt), Mujati (Mercey, 56), Lawes, (Van Velze, 60), Dowson (Nutley, 67), Wood, Manoa.
Referee Wayne Barnes (Gloucestershire).
Tries: Morris, Kitchener, Tuilagi, Goneva
Pens: Flood, Ford 4
Tries: Myler, Foden, Dickson
Con: MylerReuse content