It took champion quality and plenty more besides from Northampton, the Premiership title-holders and league leaders, to come from behind three times and beat their greatest rivals, despite the home side losing their captain and England hooker Dylan Hartley to the second red card of a horrendously chequered career.
Hartley was dismissed just 16 minutes into the match, for flinging a retaliatory elbow into the face of the Tigers centre Matt Smith, who had cleared him from a ruck and clung on to his jersey. A lesser team in a different match – not this derby with an increasingly outrageous reputation for fights and fury – might have struggled even to stay on level terms. Instead, Northampton were driven on by Luther Burrell’s insistent carrying, Steve Myler’s wondrous distribution and second-half tries by Alex Waller, Ben Foden and Jamie Elliott, interspersed with a pair for the Leicester wing Niki Goneva.
Hartley will be suspended at a hearing this week; the question, bearing in mind Northampton’s crucial European ties against Ospreys and Racing Metro in January, and England’s Six Nations campaign starting in Wales on 6 February, is for how long. A mid-range entry point looks likely, which for striking with the elbow is five weeks. Then the panel will consider whether Hartley’s miserable rap sheet – featuring four bans adding up to 47 weeks for offences including punching, biting and gouging – outweighs any plea that he was provoked by Smith. It was a marginal call. The Leicester player dropped to the ground (Northampton’s England prop, Alex Corbisiero, analysing for BT Sport, said he deserved an Oscar) but was fine to play on, as the referee JP Doyle asked for a video review. Doyle appeared to lean towards a sin-bin yellow card, but the television match official Sean Davey urged him to upgrade it to a red.
Think of Northampton v Leicester aggro and the memory skims easily to two matches at Welford Road with Manu Tuilagi clouting Chris Ashton, and two red cards and an Alesana Tuilagi hair-pulling, then back here last May when Salesi Ma’afu was sent off by Doyle for punching Leicester’s Tom Youngs. Plus, most notoriously for Hartley, the 2013 final at Twickenham when he was red-carded for verbal abuse of the referee Wayne Barnes. Last month Hartley suffered a costly sin-binning with England for a stamp against South Africa.
Most perturbingly, with this magnificent player, one wonders sometimes what goes through his head. Maybe he was wound up by Dan Cole’s early success in the Leicester scrum. Maybe Smith fell too easily. Jim Mallinder, the Northampton director, said: “Dylan should have kept his arms down, but the opposition made it a lot easier for the referee.” But Hartley was considered to be in last-chance territory with England and yet still seems prone to incidents that are as avoidable as they are headline-grabbing.
Northampton chose to bring off a centre, Tom Stephenson, in order to bring on substitute hooker Mike Haywood, and, despite trailing to a scrummaging penalty try converted by Owen Williams, they kept Leicester occupied with intelligent running into space. Two penalties by Myler followed by Waller’s brilliant team try after 45 minutes had the Saints 11-7 up. Then came the Leicester pack’s only scrummaging aberration: a penalty conceded for wheeling that Myler – just back from a concussion check – missed in the 52nd minute.
Tom Wood may find that his flying entry into the original first-half melee is looked into by the independent citing officer. There were high tackles as the momentum pinballed around, including one for which Tigers flanker Tom Croft went to the bin just before the break.
Burrell said afterwards: “That’s an absolutely amazing feeling. Having gone down to 14 men, our pride in the jersey shows what it means to play for this club. We said at half-time, we’ll do this for Dylan.”
They did so despite Goneva skating over for Leicester in the 61st and 71st minutes, with Freddie Burns carrying hard for the first try, and Miles Benjamin’s pace stretching Saints before the ball was recycled the width of the pitch for the second.
In between, Burrell’s blast and Myler’s out-the-side pass sent Foden in. With three minutes left, and the crowd going potty, Saints mauled from a line-out, drew Leicester in with Burrell running hard at Burns and saw top handling by Haywood and Myler topped off by Elliott’s finish and Myler’s conversion.
Northampton: J Wilson (B Foden 57); K Pisi (J Elliott 72), T Stephenson (M Haywood 17), L Burrell, G North; S Myler (B Foden 45-51), K Fotuali’i (L Dickson 63); A Waller (E Waller 63), D Hartley (capt), S Ma’afu (G Denman 51), C Lawes, C Day (S Dickinson 63), C Clark (P Dowson 63), T Wood, S Manoa.
Leicester: M Tait; B Scully (M Benjamin 41), M Smith (F Burns 59), A Allen, V Goneva; O Williams, B Youngs (capt); M Ayerza (M Rizzo 59), T Youngs (L Ghiraldini 45), D Cole, G Kitchener, G Parling, T Croft (R Barbieri 54), J Salvi, J Crane.
Referee: JP Doyle (RFU).Reuse content