Saints' sins prove the final factor in Tigers' well-merited triumph
The madness of Dylan Hartley compounds Stephen Myler's confusion to provide the pivotal moment in a Twickenham thriller
Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. Or failing that, deaf. Dylan Hartley's combustible temperament may or may not put him in the "stark raving bonkers" category, but it is devilishly difficult to argue that Stephen Myler is anything other than stone-cold sane. On balance, the safest explanation for events during the two-minute upheaval that decided a mesmerising Premiership final, in which Leicester Tigers beat Northampton Saints 37-17, is that the central figures suddenly found themselves hard of hearing.
If ever a referee went out of his way to warn two players of the potential consequences of their actions, Wayne Barnes was that official. The lawyer from the Forest Of Dean is no stranger to controversy – think back to the World Cup quarter-final between France and New Zealand in 2007, or the pool game between South Africa and Wales at the subsequent global tournament in 2011 – and as he mentioned before arming himself with his whistle at Twickenham for the most highly charged East Midlands derby in living memory, he has had his fill of it. The last thing he wanted was another big-time row. Bland, boring anonymity would have suited him just fine.
Which goes some way towards explaining why he called Hartley to one side shortly before the interval and advised him to keep his heavily Anglo-Saxonised comments to himself, indicating in the process that any ripe language aimed in his own direction would have to be "dealt with". When, after penalising the Northampton front row at the very next scrum, he heard the words "f***ing cheat" pass Hartley's lips, he saw red, as any referee might have done under the circumstances, and felt he had no option but to produce a card of the same colour.
Things would not have reached this pretty pass had Myler listened to instructions – three different sets of them, all amounting to the same thing – in the immediate build-up to that fateful set piece. Barnes repeatedly told the stand-off that whatever the game clock might say, the half could not end on a restart kick sent directly into touch. He was wasting his breath: when Myler went ahead regardless, Barnes waved his arms in something approaching complete exasperation and called play back for a Leicester scrum on the Saints' 22 that would cost Hartley so dear.
Afterwards, Myler could not begin to explain his decision to drop out on the full. He spoke of "confusion" and "faulty interpretation" without shining even the dimmest light on what went through his mind, signing off with four words – "It's difficult, I guess" – that sounded like an apology, even if he didn't quite know what he was apologising for.
It was left to Leicester's triumphant rugby director, Richard Cockerill, to provide some clarity. Cockerill had picked a fight of his own with the Twickenham officials following a blood-curdling, rib-rearranging, guided missile of a hit by Courtney Lawes on the unfortunate Toby Flood, thereby infuriating the Northampton hierarchy, who objected to the public nature, and indeed the vehemence, of his protest. Was he remotely apologetic? Was he heck.
"Why was I ranting and raving at that point? Because the tackle was late, it was clearly foul play and it had broken a No 10 of international quality, leaving us in serious difficulties," he explained in characteristically forthright fashion. "Are we saying it's OK to hit people late and put them off the field? I was protecting my players. When that kind of thing is happening, no one is going to stop me talking to whoever I want. That much I can guarantee you.
"If Northampton are going to make smart-arsed comments about me, maybe they should look at themselves. I didn't ask them to hit people late or swear at the referee. How they choose to behave on the field is up to them. Us? We were very disciplined out there and we have our reward."
And what a reward. After consecutive final defeats that had left them looking on Twickenham as a vale of tears, Leicester returned to the high peak of the English club game with a four-try victory that had a good deal to do with Hartley's early departure, but not everything. The Tigers were far from perfect – their line-out, fed by one Lions forward in Tom Youngs and organised by a second in Geoff Parling, was a sorry mess from start to finish – but they scrummaged so strongly and scavenged so effectively, they were never headed, despite Northampton's ingenuity in open field and bloody-minded resistance at close quarters.
Every time the Saints landed a blow – Ben Foden, Luther Burrell, the resourceful Myler and the destructive Lawes all did so, in their very different ways – Leicester responded with something heavier and harder. Flood was playing beautifully before Lawes left him "more spaced out than usual", to quote Cockerill once again. Mathew Tait at full-back? Exceptional. Logovi'i Mulipola in the front row? Far better than anticipated. Julian Salvi in the back row? Every bit as good as expected, which made him very good indeed.
If Northampton's tries were the most eye-catching in the creative sense – not least Foden's 43rd-minute finish down the left after some lovely distribution from Mike Haywood and Ryan Wilson – a clear majority of the Tigers' scores were constructed on the foundations of their opponents' occasional defensive lapses. Yet Flood's approach work for Niall Morris's opening touchdown seven minutes into the contest was utterly captivating and had he stayed on the field, we might well have witnessed the defining performance of his career.
Instead, we saw what may ultimately be seen as the defining moment of Hartley's. The exiled New Zealander is one hell of a hooker, but when it comes to disciplinary matters he is also the hooker from hell.
"Dylan plays on the edge, and that's why we follow him," said Tom Wood, the international flanker who assumed the captaincy in the second half. Unfortunately, Hartley disappeared over the edge on Saturday – and took his team with him.
Leicester: Tries Morris, Kitchener, Tuilagi, Goneva; Conversion Flood; Penalties Ford 4, Flood Northampton: Tries Myler, Foden, Dickson. Conversion Myler.
Leicester M Tait; N Morris, M Tuilagi, A Allen, V Goneva (M Smith, 74); T Flood (capt, G Ford, 23), B Youngs (S Harrison, 74); L Mulipola (F Balmain, 74), T Youngs (R Hawkins, 67), D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 67), G Kitchener (E Slater, 55), G Parling, T Croft, J Salvi, J Crane (S Mafi, 72).
Northampton B Foden (G Pisi, 67); K Pisi, R Wilson, L Burrell, J Elliott (M Haywood, h-t); S Myler (R Lamb, 67), L Dickson (M Roberts, 67); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 55), D Hartley (capt), B Mujati (T Mercey, 56), C Lawes, C Day (G-J Van Velze, 59), P Dowson (B Nutley, 67), T Wood, S Manoa.
Referee W Barnes (London).
Roaring Tigers: Final in numbers
10 Leicester's win was their 10th title success, dating back to 1988.
2007 Leicester's 37 points was the highest score in a final since their 44-16 win over Gloucester six years ago.
0 Previous red cards shown in a Premiership final.
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