Saints are swamped by Tigers' Flood tide
Northampton Saints 21 Leicester Tigers 35: Leicester's fifth bonus-point win in a row sees east Midlands rivals fall apart
Leicester showed why they are the bookmakers' favourites to win the Aviva Premiership and stayed on course for a remarkable eighth successive final with this humbling of their near neighbours.
"The home tie in the semi-finals would be key for us," said Richard Cockerill, Leicester's director of rugby, after his side set a Premiership record with a fifth bonus-point win in a row. "At Welford Road we'd back ourselves to beat anybody."
They were pretty potent at Franklin's Gardens too as Toby Flood, the recently deposed England fly-half, scored two tries and 15 points from kicks to expose shoddy defence and drive home Leicester's dominance in the scrum and post-tackle battle. Cockerill – seated in the back row of the grandstand alongside the press and an arm's length from the elite referee manager, Brian Campsall – was his usual highly vocal self. One home supporter remonstrated face to face.
"He was all right," said Cockerill, who had a ban two seasons ago for verbal abuse of a referee but was acquitted of abusing Campsall during a match at Leicester last year. "We don't want to lose that connection with the supporters. He said, 'Will you stop shouting 'roll away' and 'offside'."
There is not much chance of Cockerill or his equally loud assistant, Matt O'Connor, ever doing that but the on-field stuff was mostly fairly fought. Three matches in 11 months had made headlines – Manu Tuilagi punching Chris Ashton in last season's semi-final; a dust-up in December being generated by Ashton pulling Alesana Tuilagi's hair; and the Leicester hooker Rob Hawkins's elbow being broken by Calum Clark in last month's LV Cup final, costing the Northampton flanker a 32-week ban to go with club captain Dylan Hartley's eight-week suspension for biting while playing for England. The first two of those games were refereed by Wayne Barnes, who ran touch here. Still an apparent trip by James Downey to halt a run by the impressive Leicester flanker Julian Salvi went unnoticed by the officials.
Northampton's main gripe currently can only be with the fates. Lacking Hartley until the final if they get there and two more England forwards, the injured Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes, for at least anotherweek, they may have their interest in the play-offs ended if they lose at Exeter next Sunday. This was Saints' fifth successive defeat by the Tigers, although the first on this ground in six meetings since October 2006.
"Next week is a massive game for us to get into that top four," said Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby. "I wouldn't say we're struggling but we came second best today and need to sort it out."
It is building to be an exciting shakedown, unfettered by the English clubs' failure to reach any European semi-final. If Flood's form continues he will have a case to resume for England in South Africa. Having lost his spot to Saracens' Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell during the Six Nations, Flood reminded the watching national forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, of his skill-set.
"Does Floody kick the ball as well as others?" Cockerill said, rhetorically."He's different to the other guys. He likes to attack the line and keep the ball in hand and his ability to get the team playing is fantastic for us."
The dry conditions encouraged movement and Northampton's tackling was not up to it. Tries by Flood and Alesana Tuilagi after 15 and 17 minutes respectively helped turn a 6-0 deficit – two penalties by Ryan Lamb – into a 17-6 lead, with Flood converting twice and adding a 32nd-minute penalty. The skills of Anthony Allen to charge Lamb down for Flood's score, and Horacio Agulla to catch his own chip and hold off George Pisi's tackle as he passed inside to the elder Tuilagi, were worth shouting about by Cockerill or anyone else.
Lamb's penalty cut it to 17-9 by half-time but Leicester's breakdown indiscretions were few and far enough between to spare them until the final 10 minutes, when Martin Castrogiovanni saw yellow. By that time it was 35-16, with Flood's penalty and a nicely finished if poorly defended try by Agulla replied to by a line-out drive from which Lee Dickson, the England scrum-half and stand-in Saints captain, stole over. Steve Myler converted but the comeback went west with Ashton's unfortunate stumble after Pisi's break.
Flood kicked a penalty from a scrum and only with Tigers down to 14 did Northampton get a second try: a fifth of the season by Ashton, with an adroit scoop-up of Myler's short chip.
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, G Pisi, J Downey (T May, 66), P Diggin; R Lamb (S Myler, 55), L Dickson (capt; M Roberts, 66); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 55), A Long (R McMillan, 73), B Mujati (P Doran-Jones, 55), S Manoa (B Nutley, 66), C Day (M Sorenson, 55), J Craig, R Wilson, P Dowson.
Leicester Tigers S Hamilton; H Agulla (M Smith, 60), M Tuilagi (B Twelvetrees, 77), A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs (S Harrison, 77); M Ayerza (L Mulipola, 74), G Chuter (capt; T Youngs, 69), D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 55), G Skivington, G Parling, T Croft (S Mafi, 66), T Waldrom (Cole, 73), J Salvi (C Newby, 71).
Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).
Tries: Ashton, Dickson
Pens: Lamb 3
Tries: Agulla, Flood 2, A Tuilagi
Cons: Flood 3
Pens: Flood 3
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