In 131 years, there have been many classics between these Midlands rivals, but seldom one to match this. Two red cards, seven tries and an intensity worthy of the Test arena gave a capacity crowd a wonderful afternoon.
That one of the red cards went to Tom Wood will not improve the argument for the Northampton flanker as a potential England leader. But his absence, after a fight that also cost the Leicester wing Alesana Tuilagi his place on the field and might have earned dismissals for two more players, arguably cost Northampton a first Premiership win at Welford Road for four years.
Remarkably it was Leicester's first home Premiership win of the season and it lifted them to sixth in the table, level on points with Saints in fifth. The match, involving so many players likely to grace next month's England squad, was watched by Stuart Lancaster, the England Saxons coach who may well act in an interim capacity for the Six Nations.
Going a seventh successive game without defeat will boost Leicester before back to back games against Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup. A disciplinary hearing this week will determine whether Tuilagi and Wood will be available for Europe. Worse for Northampton, Phil Dowson, outstanding here, faces a hearing on Tuesday.
The rivalry between the clubs was spiced by the set-to in last season's Premiership semi-final between Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton, when the younger Tuilagi received a yellow card and was then suspended for six weeks. Whether Wayne Barnes, yesterday's referee, was over-conscious of that, only he can say. Both directors of rugby, Richard Cockerill and Jim Mallinder, thought the red cards were an over-reaction. "I couldn't see Alesana doing anything wrong, and he was dragged off the field by his hair," Cockerill said, though the gusto with which Horacio Agulla and Courtney Lawes joined the conflict could have made matters worse.
All of which obscured the quality of a game in which Northampton battled back so well that they took the lead with 14 minutes remaining, only to lose when Agulla ran in from 45 metres for the bonus-point try with four minutes left on the clock.
Northampton, with Ben Foden brilliant, always looked likely to break Leicester's defence but after Wood was sent off the Tigers squeezed out a succession of scrum penalties. It took Northampton's management 20 minutes before they removed a wing, Jamie Elliott, to bring on Samu Manoa at lock and restore their pack to eight. In that period, Leicester scored twice: first they worked a hole for Matt Smith on Ashton's wing and the centre finished magnificently. Their second was more prosaic, Steve Mafi winning a line-out and re-appearing after two rucks to plunge over.
Northampton's response was outstanding: Foden set a ruck and popped up again to give Ashton the space to beat Toby Flood's tackle. Northampton then turned Flood over 10 metres from their own line and away went their tight forwards, inter-passing before setting Tom May free on the left. The centre seemed clear before Mafi's tap-tackle brought him low. Back came Leicester and, when everyone seemed to stop for the referee's whistle as Ryan Lamb dropped the ball, play and Julian Salvi were waved on. From a ruck on the line, Ben Youngs darted over to score. Lamb was promptly replaced by Stephen Myler.
It was from Myler's break that Northampton flowed forward and May squeezed over. When a clearance found Foden, Northampton's backs clicked and Ashton kicked ahead and recovered to give Dowson the try. Myler's conversion pushed Northampton ahead but when he chipped into the Leicester 22, George Chuter set in motion the move which decided it. Ed Slater drew defenders before sending Agulla clear for a try which Flood converted from the touchline.
Leicester Tigers G Murphy (capt); H Agulla (S Hamilton, 77), M Smith, B Twelvetrees, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs (S Harrison, 77); M Ayerza (B Stankovich, 78), G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni, 58), L Deacon, G Skivington (E Slater, 63), S Mafi (B Woods, 77), T Waldrom, J Salvi.
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, G Pisi, T May (J Clarke, 74), J Elliott (S Manoa, 34); R Lamb (S Myler, 61), L Dickson (M Roberts, 63); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 61), D Hartley (capt; M Haywood, 61), B Mujati (P Doran-Jones, 61), C Lawes, M Sorenson, P Dowson, R Wilson (B Nutley, 54), T Wood.
Referee W Barnes (London).
Tries: Smith, Mafi, Youngs, Agulla
Cons: Flood 2
Pens: Flood 2
Tries: Ashton, May, Dowson
Cons: Myler 2
Pens: Lamb 2Reuse content