Northampton Saints 8 Leicester Tigers 36 match report: Unstoppable Manu Tuilagi leaves Saints reeling
England centre leads Leicester's rout with two tries and an assist
The first few runs made by Manu Tuilagi in this derby dust-up that gave a big pointer towards the likely Premiership play-off placings had Northampton scrambling at full stretch but unbreached. Thereafter the young Samoan-English centre was all but unstoppable. By scoring two of his team's four tries, and providing the impetus for another, Tuilagi helped Leicester into a position seven points ahead of the third-placed champions, Harlequins, and well set for a home semi-final as they seek an incredible ninth successive appearance in the Twickenham final.
Richard Cockerill, Leicester's director of rugby, describes next week's Heineken Cup quarter-final opponents Toulon as a "rock-star" team but Tuilagi is the domestic equivalent of whoever qualifies for the description in the modern music business; he's a darned sight more menacing than Justin Bieber for a start.
Poor Tom May did his best to be Northampton's buffer but he was substituted, significantly, soon after Tuilagi blasted through him for Leicester's second try in the 63rd minute. Nine minutes later, Niall Morris went over after Tuilagi scooped up a slapdash pass from Ben Youngs, who had tapped a penalty for Leicester, to straighten an attack joined by Julian Salvi and Mathew Tait – each of whom did more than their bit at openside flanker and full-back respectively.
Tom Croft, too, had a ball in the loose; notwithstanding what looked like a dazing bang on the head for the hooker, Tom Youngs, it was an afternoon every man jack of the Tigers will look back on with a wide smile. "The best we've played this season," said Cockerill, who revealed his forwards had "brawled" for 90 minutes in training last Tuesday to prepare for the Northampton maul that had shattered Wasps in the previous Premiership round.
It was most evident in a spell of three Saints line-outs in the Leicester 22 around the 52-minute mark which ended, to howls of home frustration, with a free-kick to the visitors for an early scrum engagement. Even so, Leicester were already 17-3 up by that stage, and confidently giving the ball air in anticipation of outflanking Northampton's narrow defence. A yellow card to each side – Courtney Lawes for Northampton in the 36th minute and Morris in the 57th, both for deliberate knock-ons to stop passes – was the only element that finished even.
It took more than 20 minutes for a scrum to yield ball for the backs; there were two free-kicks for Leicester engaging early that may have been reminders to Dan Cole and the Youngs brothers of their misery with England in Wales a couple of weeks ago. The referee here was Wayne Barnes, and Cockerill, as is his wont, bellowed regular suggestions to the official. "Well, shouting keeps you warm, doesn't it?" Cockerill remarked to a nearby Saints fan.
Naturally enough between these great rivals, there were a few contentious decisions as the first half inched towards a 12-3 Leicester advantage through four penalties by their captain Toby Flood to one from his opposite number at fly-half, Steve Myler. The Lawes sin-bin offence gave Flood his fourth kick a week after his same tally at Exeter had won Leicester the match. This one came from a sharp Leicester turnover as Tuilagi helped wrest possession from Ben Foden, the Northampton full-back with a bit to prove after watching Alex Goode occupy his position for England all season. Foden had also spilled a high ball in the swirling wind and his raids from deep were mostly unsuccessful.
In any case, what few line-out drives there were came from Leicester, and they had many other ways of achieving a seventh straight win over Saints in all competitions since September 2010. Lawes was still off the field when Leicester had the opening try, 100 seconds into the second half. Salvi cut a diagonal line across the face of the posts, and Jordan Crane and Marcos Ayerza passed neatly for Tuilagi to dive past Foden to the left corner for his sixth club try of the season. Myler is much maligned for his distribution, but a lovely flat pass to Foden, and a quick recycle near the corner, gave the home No 10 a try after 56 minutes he was unable to convert.
Leicester returned to the attack, with Tait following Tuilagi and Morris to the line for the fourth Tigers try when Ben Youngs's looped pass bounced kindly off James Wilson's hand. "If we end up playing away from home [in the play-offs] that's where most of our best rugby has been played this season," said Jim Mallinder, Cockerill's Northampton counterpart, whose team are fourth. All the other clubs in the top five have won at Franklin's Gardens this season, and the 28-point margin was Leicester's biggest in the league on this ground.
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), T Wood, P Dowson (GJ van Velze, 55).
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 Crane (T Waldrom, 59), J Salvi.
Referee W Barnes (London).
Tries: Tuilagi (2), Morris, Tait
Cons: Flood (2)
Pens: Flood (4)
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