Northampton 21 Leicester 20 match report: Tom Wood's last-gasp try turns tide to give battling Saints the final word
Leicester hooker Tom Youngs was sent to the sin-bin during an explosive encounter
Leicester have appeared at Twickenham in each of the last nine Premiership finals. They will not make it into double figures. Northampton, their implacable East Midlands foe, survived the dismissal of their heavyweight Wallaby prop Salesi Ma'afu to stage a comeback of mighty proportions, capped with a try in the left corner from the phenomenally effective England flanker Tom Wood with a little over two minutes left on the clock. It will go down in Saints' lore as one of the great victories.
Here was a game that showcased Premiership rugby at its most captivating: fast, ferocious, red in tooth and claw. The physicality level in the opening stages was eye-wateringly high and this fire and fury was always likely to rage out of control and it did so midway through the second half when Tom Youngs, the Leicester hooker, and Ma'afu had a pugilistic falling out that ended when the Australian connected with a top-of-the-range left hook. While Youngs was sent to the cooler, Ma'afu saw straight red. To his credit, he did not have the brass neck to look surprised.
Frankly, the game was comfortably entertaining enough without the closed-fist cabaret, for it is in knock-out contests of this magnitude that the big players grow to their fullest height. Kahn Fotuali'i, the Samoan scrum-half who has nudged the England international Lee Dickson out of Northampton's starting line-up and is just about the best No 9 in the world on his day, looked positively lethal, sniping around the corners and ransacking his box of off-load tricks whenever the Leicester defenders found a way of laying hands on him. Fotuali'i might easily have scored the opening try on nine minutes with a quick-witted scamper down the short side, but he was denied by Mathew Tait's outstanding cover hit, executed in full retreat.
But then, Tait is a big player himself: one of the very biggest in English rugby, health and fitness willing. Tonight, he was bang on his game, with and without the ball. He was secure in defence once again when the young Northampton wing Tom Collins – "he wears 14 and looks 14", in the words of one Saints official – set sail in broken field and looked an even-money bet to float in at the right corner. The Leicester full-back's tackle was as faultless in its timing as it was important.
And it was Tait who played the crucial role in Manu Tuilagi's try wide on the right on 24 minutes. The Tigers had just seen Toby Flood's early penalty cancelled out by Stephen Myler when they upped the pace inside the Northampton 22 and forced their hosts into scramble mode. Flood's initial half-break had the desired effect of winning some space for Tait to work some magic with his footwork and after he had danced his way to within a couple of metres of the sticks, possession was whipped out to the human bowling ball, who scored on the overlap.
Myler reduced the arrears some five minutes later when the referee, J P Doyle, decided that the Leicester wing Vereniki Goneva had chanced his arm a little too far in kicking the ball clear of a ruck. Doyle pointed the Fijian towards the sin-bin, which was where he had ended up on the Tigers' last visit to this ground in late March. If it happens again, he will be awarded squatter's rights.
Not that it mattered much to his club-mates, who quickly conjured a second try to put clear daylight between them and their most bitter rivals. There was nothing particularly magical about this one: Jordan Crane's clean line-out delivery from the rear gunner's position allowed Mulipola to smash his way into the Northampton red zone, and from the ensuing ruck, Ben Youngs dummied a pass off his right hand before completing the touchdown. This was succour for the out-of-sorts England scrum-half, whose tactical kicking had been profoundly muddle-headed.
After the break, the fun and games really began. Daniel Bowden, the Leicester centre, was given a 10-minute breather without the option for tip-tackling Collins – the accurate Myler accepted the three points on offer to reduce the deficit to eight – and following the Ma'afu incident, there was another flare-up involving a cast of thousands, with the Northampton back-rower Calum Clark playing a starring role. Somewhere amid the mayhem, the Lions Test wing George North burst over from a driving line-out maul to take the home side within a point.
That slipped up to three when Owen Williams, on for the stricken Flood, kicked a penalty as the game entered its coda, but Leicester were on the back foot now and they could do nothing to prevent Wood's decisive act after terrific approach work from James Wilson and a sweet scoring pass from Luther Burrell. The celebrations were nothing short of joyous.
Scorers: Northampton – Tries: North, Wood. Conversion: Myler. Penalties: Myler 3. Leicester – Tries: Tuilagi, B Youngs. Conversions: Flood 2. Penalties: Flood, Williams.
Northampton: B Foden; T Collins (T Mercey 57), G Pisi (J Wilson 65), L Burrell, G North; S Myler, K Fotuali'I (L Dickson 62); A Waller (A Corbisiero 51), M Haywood, S Ma'afu, S Manoa (C Day 68), C Lawes, T Wood, P Dowson (capt, C Clark 54), S Dickinson.
Leicester: M Tait (S Mafi 60); N Morris, M Tuilagi, D Bowden, V Goneva; T Flood (O Williams 62), B Youngs; M Ayerza, T Youngs, L Mulipola, L Deacon (G Kitchener 68), E Slater (capt), J Gibson (N Briggs 57, A Thompstone 68), J Salvi, J Crane.
Referee: J P Doyle (London).
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