The combustible recent history of this derby fixture took its latest unpredictable lurch as Northampton were beaten by their greatest rivals and nearest challengers in the fight for Premiership play-off places.
Saints’ totemic captain, the England hooker Dylan Hartley, was forced off the field before half-time with a painful injury to his right shoulder that was self-inflicted as he attempted a headlong clear-out tackle on Leicester’s flanker Jamie Gibson. And Hartley was also embroiled in a row over an incident of biting alleged by his opposite number, and England team-mate, Leicester’s Tom Youngs.
If any further action is be taken over the alleged bite, which a clearly angry Youngs brought to the attention of the referee Wayne Barnes after a scrum in the 15th minute collapsed into a pile-up of forwards grappling on the ground, it will come from the match citing commissioner, Wade Dooley. Video replays studied on the spot by Barnes and his television match official Trevor Fisher showed “nothing clear and obvious”, as they put it, so it will be left to Dooley, the towering former police officer and England lock forward, to unravel the mystery wrapped up in Leicester’s 10th consecutive match unbeaten against their East Midlands neighbours dating back to September 2010.
Northampton were leading 3-0 through a penalty by Will Hooley – the 20-year-old fly-half deputising for the injured Steve Myler – when Northampton’s Tom Wood knocked on to concede a scrum seven metres from the home goalline. Everyone present had memories of Youngs, Hartley and Barnes being pivotal characters in the drama of the Premiership final at Twickenham 10 months ago, when Hartley was sent off and banned for 11 weeks for verbally abusing Barnes, though Hartley argued that his comment had been aimed at Youngs. The last three years have also seen Northampton’s Calum Clark banned for breaking the arm of Leicester’s hooker Rob Hawkins in the 2012 LV Cup final, and punch-ups in two league meetings.
This time the front rows over- balanced with the Northampton front rowers Hartley and Salesi Ma’afu on top of Youngs. But after the inconclusive replays – while Hartley was overheard on TV telling Barnes “you can’t have people throwing allegations around like that” – play continued without penalty. Hartley had earlier appeared to be slapped in the face by Leicester’s loosehead Logo Mulipola. There appeared to be blood on Youngs’ face and shorts. And Ma’afu failed to last the first half too, limping off.
Leicester’s director of rugby Richard Cockerill, mindful perhaps that these teams looked destined to clash again in the play-off semi-finals – Saints, in second place, are ahead of Tigers by seven points and must still travel to Saracens and Bath – chose his words carefully. “Tom says he was bitten on the hand,” said Cockerill. “By whom, he didn’t elaborate.” Cockerill’s Northampton counterpart Jim Mallinder said: “I don’t think there’s anything in it, I’d be surprised [if there was].”
Leicester had a 13-8 lead by half-time after the repeat scrum following the biting allegation ended with Tom Youngs’ scrum-half brother Ben giving a long scoring pass to Anthony Allen, aided at the right corner by George North’s misjudgement flying out of defence. Owen Williams’ conversion and subsequent two penalties began an unbroken sequence of successful goal-kicks for the Leicester fly-half, in marked contrast to Hooley, who missed a 25-metre penalty head on to the posts and the conversion of a try direct from a line-out drive by Kahn Fotuali’i in the 39th minute.
With Mulipola carrying eye-catchingly, there were only groans for Hooley’s tendency to kick, even from first-phase, presumably under orders. After his third missed goal attempt – a penalty in the 53rd minute from the 10-metre line – he was replaced by James Wilson, with Fotuali’i moving to fly-half. Williams relentlessly hit the target with the Welsh Tiger’s additional successful after 56, 62 and 64 minutes, with one for Saints in between by Wilson .
So it was 22-11 to Leicester with 15 minutes remaining, as they chased the fillip of victory before going to Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup next Saturday. There was an expert disruption of a Northampton line-out drive and a turnover that had Cockerill – who revealed in midweek he had turned down an approach to coach Clermont - screaming “get in there”. There were yellow cards to Ben Youngs and Niki Goneva, and a try wide out for Northampton’s prop Ethan Waller, as 15 men played 13. And another row right at the end, as Manu Tuilagi scrambled a North grubber into touch.
If you have a ticket for Northampton versus Leicester in the near future, bring a hard hat.
Northampton Saints: B Foden; J Elliott (L Dickson, 65), G Pisi (K Pisi, 69), L Burrell, G North; W Hooley (J Wilson, 56), K Fotuali’i; A Waller (E Waller, 62), D Hartley (capt, M Haywood, 33), S Ma’afu (T Mercey, 38), C Lawes, C Day, C Clark (GJ van Velze, 66), P Dowson, T Wood.
Leicester Tigers: S Hamilton; N Goneva, M Tuilagi, A Allen (T Flood, 39-41), A Thompstone (S Harrison, 76); O Williams (Flood 69), B Youngs; M Ayerza, T Youngs (R Hawkins, 69), L Mulipola (F Balmain, 74), L Deacon (G Kitchener, 62), E Slater (capt), J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane.
Referee: W Barnes (London).