Loss of captains critical in fiery Aviva Premiership showpiece final


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The Independent Online

A tale of two captains who failed to last the course, one in disgrace, the other whose absence looked likely to cost his club the grandest domestic prize English rugby has to offer. The 228th meeting of these two Midland rivals was not, you might say, without incident.

The long-term repercussions for Dylan Hartley of his red card will unfold during the coming week but the departure at half-time of the Northampton hooker and captain cost his side dear. It offset the loss to Leicester 16 minutes earlier of Toby Flood, concussed in a heavy tackle and whose absence seemed to throw his colleagues into confusion.

Discipline, or lack of it, was key to the winning and losing of this Aviva Premiership final. Hartley, 27, has known problems before – bans for gouging, biting and punching over the last six years – but had been thought to have overcome them sufficiently to captain his country on tour in South Africa a year ago.

Here, however, with Northampton straining every sinew to claw back Leicester's early lead, Hartley lost control in the five minutes before half-time. The television official had just ruled out a score for Ben Foden, Northampton's full back, when Soane Tonga'uiha was penalised at a scrum.

Hartley's reaction was sufficient for Wayne Barnes, refereeing his fifth grand final, to call the hooker over: "This is not how to behave as a captain," Barnes said. "Please keep your comments to yourself or I'll deal with it. If you talk to me like that again, I'll have to deal with it."

Two minutes later frustration boiled over. First Stephen Myler, contrary to an implicit instruction by Barnes, sent a drop-out directly into touch and conceded a scrum on the 22-metre line as the first half went into time added on. The Leicester drive came on, Tonga'uiha was penalised again and as the front-row forwards picked themselves up, Hartley could not restrain himself.

Barnes instantly brandished a red card and Hartley stood stunned. The lack of reaction caused Barnes to call over Tom Wood, who will captain England on tour to South America next month, to explain. "This player has just called me a fucking cheat, he must leave the field," the referee said before George Ford, Flood's replacement, added three points.

In the aftermath, it was claimed by Northampton that Hartley had been addressing Tom Youngs, his rival at hooker for England and the British and Irish Lions. "If you talk like that to a player, you wouldn't expect anything to happen, clearly Wayne Barnes believed Dylan spoke to him," Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby, said.

"I'll support Dylan in what he says, he's my captain, and a number of senior players around him agreed he was looking down at Youngs. I feel sorry for him, for the whole team, it was a massive turning point."

So it was, yet Northampton continued to dominate many areas of the game against a curiously lacklustre Leicester. The first quarter had gone to plan before Flood crumpled to the ground in a tackle by Courtney Lawes; it was marginally late, Lawes was duly penalised but, despite some histrionics on the touchline from the Leicester coaching staff, the England lock remained on the field.

After lengthy treatment, Flood resumed but lasted only another three minutes before being replaced by Ford. With Flood went much of his side's defensive shape and cohesion: "We spoke all week about discpline, we know how Wayne Barnes referees, he likes to be treated with respect," Richard Cockerill, Leicester's head coach, said.

"When I came down to the touchline, I was talking to the fourth official about going to the television match official. It was clearly foul play, it was late and you have broken an international fly half who is very important to the game. To me, the sanction for that is a yellow card."

In the end, Leicester did not need it but they lived dangerously for far too long.