Northampton 8 Leicester 36: Toulon will test even record-breakers Leicester
Leicester had a fantastic prelude to this week's Heineken Cup quarter-final with their record league win away to Northampton, 36-8 at Franklin's Gardens on Saturday. Then the chastening news came in that Tigers' European opponents Toulon had done even better with a 43-11 thrashing of Stade Français under the roof of the Grand Stade Lille Métropole in northern France.
Leicester's director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, while thrilled that his team had consolidated second place in the Premiership and a probable home play-off tie in May, remarked wryly of the gap in class and resources they now have to make up when they visit the "rock-star" side of Toulon.
"We registered three players for Europe [after the pool stage] who were Scott Steele, Kieran Brookes and Michael Noone," Cockerill said, referring to the uncapped Scotsman, Englishman and Irishman aged 23 or younger. "Toulon have brought in [Australia flanker] Rocky Elsom and [South Africa No 8] Danie Rossouw. We have to approach it that they can only put 15 blokes in the field and we'll do the same – but everybody will expect us to be beaten."
Everybody, perhaps, outside the Leicester training ground, where a prolonged bout of "brawling," as Cockerill described it, last Tuesday, readied them for the Northampton maul, which was duly neutered at a series of line-outs in the Leicester 22 in the third quarter to reinforce the visitors' lead of 17-3 at that stage.
Manu Tuilagi, Leicester's England centre, was back to form in scoring two tries and making another, and he revealed that the reserve prop Fraser Balmain had acted the role of Northampton's Soane Tonga'uiha in the preparations.
"I wasn't involved, thank God," said Tuilagi. "Fraser said it was the worst session he had ever had. Every time he got the ball everyone was shouting 'Tonga'uiha' and was smashing him." That kind of exuberance, allied with every milligram of sweat the forwards can muster, might just upset a powerful but undeniably long-in-the-tooth Toulon, whose try-scorers against Stade Français came from four countries: Juan Fernandez Lobbe (Argentina), Alexis Palisson (France), Chris Masoe (New Zealand) and England's Steffon Armitage. Oh, and Jonny Wilkinson knocked over 17 points, naturally.
Armitage's battle at open-side flanker with Leicester's Julian Salvi on Sunday should be a treat in itself. Northampton's Tom Wood tackled ferociously but Saints' back row as a unit were ponderously unable to deny quick ball through Salvi, making it easier for Toby Flood and Anthony Allen to be expansive in midfield.
Tuilagi barged Northampton's full-back Ben Foden out of the way for a short-range finish in the 42nd minute and blasted through Tom May for his second try on 62 minutes, either side of which Niall Morris and Mathew Tait completed the bonus point and made Leicester the Premiership's top try-scorers with 44.
Northampton are out of both European competitions, so can concentrate on the league, but do not look in the shape to worry Saracens or Leicester even if they make the play-offs. The fireworks as the players ran out misfired when a box exploded close to Leicester's Marcos Ayerza and Tuilagi, and the pair soon got their own back, with Leicester nine points up by half-time through four penalties by Flood to one from Steve Myler.
Northampton: Try Myler; Penalty Myler. Leicester: Tries Tuilagi 2, Morris, Tait; Conversions Flood 2; Penalties Flood 4.
Northampton B Foden; J Wilson, G Pisi, T May (L Burrell, 65), J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson (M Roberts, 66); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 59), D Hartley (capt, R McMillan, 76), T Mercey (B Mujati, 48), C Lawes, C Day, S Manoa (B Nutley, 72), P Dowson (G J van Velze, 55), T Wood.
Leicester M Tait; N Morris, M Tuilagi, A Allen (M Smith 74), A Thompstone; T Flood capt, (G Ford, 72), B Youngs (S Harrison 77); M Ayerza (L Mulipola, 63, Ayerza, 76), T Youngs (R Hawkins, 38), D Cole (M Castrogiovanni 63), E Slater, G Parling (G Kitchener, 68), T Croft, J Salvi, J Crane (T Waldrom, 59).
Referee W Barnes (London).
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