Leicester Tigers will march confidently on Europe’s most formidable fortress – Clermont Ferrand’s Stade Marcel Michelin – on the back of a sixth straight win, achieved in predictably fraught circumstances, 22-16 at Northampton on Saturday. An allegation of biting made in the first half by the Leicester hooker Tom Youngs was just one of a series of dubious incidents that are becoming the norm in this derby fixture, and given extra heat by the growing use of television review.
It was confirmed yesterday the alleged bite would go no further, with the match citing commissioner – Andy Blyth – understood to have found no case worthy of presenting to the Rugby Football Union’s head of discipline. Youngs complained furiously to referee Wayne Barnes of a bite on the hand, after a first-half scrum broke up with the Tigers’ No 2 grappling on the floor with his fellow England international Dylan Hartley and Northampton’s tight-head prop Salesi Ma’afu.
While Youngs played on regardless, Ma’afu limped off before half-time and the biggest worry for Hartley, given the ongoing Premiership run-in and a high-profile England tour to New Zealand to follow, was the injured shoulder he sustained in attempting a forceful clearout tackle on Leicester’s Jamie Gibson.
There were also swinging-arm non-tackles, yellow cards for Leicester’s Ben Youngs and Niki Goneva in the closing stages, and one of the crazy rows over a refereeing call that these big matches are beginning to specialise in. With a few seconds, and Northampton having already scored one try through Ethan Waller to exploit their two-man advantage, they forced a scrambling Manu Tuilagi to knock the ball into touch. A member of the Leicester physio staff, enthusiastically following play down the touchline, tripped over the ball, rendering any quick throw-in impossible. Northampton’s nearest player, Ben Foden, very commendably showed that he knew it had been an accident, but by the time the forwards arrived for the line-out the 80 minutes had elapsed, obliging Barnes to blow the final whistle.
A win would have made a big difference to Northampton. Successive losses to Exeter, Sale and Leicester represent an untimely wobble, and they go to Sale on Thursday for an Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final dogged by the fear of the Tigers overhauling them for a home Premiership semi-final.
“We were left fighting for our lives,” said Ed Slater, the Leicester captain, who had another fine match. “There were a lot of penalties and it was a mixed performance in terms of discipline.” He described the Tigers’ Welsh fly-half Owen Williams – who landed all his kicks while the 20-year-old Will Hooley missed three for Northampton – as “brilliant”.
As for next Saturday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final at Clermont, who have won 74 home matches in a row since November 2009, Slater said: “It’s a tall order but, if we can produce the form of the last two weeks, who knows what can happen?”
Clermont will be much tougher than the teams occupying the bottom five places in the Premiership overcome by Leicester in their winning run through February and March.