Johnson back on message while Tigers carry on regardless

Leicester 17 Northampton 6
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In the search for the moral high ground in the Martin Johnson affair, the England captain himself pitched a worthy base camp by sitting out a local derby that would ordinarily have taken wild horses to keep him away from.

Leicester's advice from the Rugby Football Union was that, in light of their appeal against the procedure that led to Johnson's three-week ban, their skipper and totem was free to play. Instead he looked on as the Tigers preserved their 17-point lead at the top of the Premiership.

A date for the appeal will be set by the president of the RFU tomorrow at the earliest. Pending the hearing, the temporary lifting of Johnson's suspension also makes him available for England in Saturday's crucial Six Nations' match in Paris. Johnson said: "I haven't really considered making myself unavailable. Over the next 24 hours there will be consultation with the England set-up. The decision to appeal [against the jurisdiction of the disciplinary panel] wasn't taken out of my hands; I was consulted. We're doing it for the right reasons, not because it's England v France next week."

Johnson returned from the disciplinary tribunal in Bristol in the small hours of Friday morning, although he took part in club training later in the day. But Dean Richards, the Tigers' director of rugby, said the decision to omit him here was more about doing the right thing.

"We felt the principle of the matter was that to play Martin would send out the wrong message as to why we are appealing," said Richards. "Everybody would have felt we were trying to pull a bit of a flanker." Leicester were already without two England forwards – Graham Rowntree and Neil Back – through injury, in addition to the crocked Ireland wing, Geordan Murphy. Richards placed his faith in the strength of his squad, and was rewarded with a rampaging try from Perry Freshwater on only the prop's fifth start of the season.

Lesser teams than Leicester might have taken their eye off the ball. A capricious, biting wind tested even the surest of hands, and events beyond the walls of Fortress Welford Road might equally have blown the champions off course. "You could feel the tension among the coaches," Richards said. "Northampton were at full strength, and if anyone was going to take our unbeaten home record from us, it would have been today. The win was outstanding and we're delighted with it."

The match itself will live extremely short in the memory, not that the Leicester will care after completing a 50th successive game here without defeat in league competition. A full-scale blizzard before kick-off had cleared into blue skies when Paul Grayson and Andy Goode exchanged penalty goals in the first six minutes.

With the wind mainly in their favour in the first half, Northampton enjoyed a few multi-phase movements but their defence was woefully inadequate after 27 minutes, as Freshwater stormed past three would-be tacklers to claim the only try. Last to see Frehshwater evade his clutches was Matt Dawson, making a tentative return after seven weeks out injured.

Nick Beal thumped over a wind-assisted penalty from half-way to trim Leicester's lead to 8-6 at the break but Northampton needed to be in front themselves at that stage. Their cause was not assisted by two trips to the blood bin for Budge Pountney, nor a stint in the sin-bin for replacement lock Olivier Brouzet 14 minutes into the second half.

Leicester were further depleted when Lewis Moody clattered into a team-mate and broke his nose, but three further penalts by Goode secured yet another four points in their march to a fourth straight Premiership title.

Leicester: A Healey; S Booth, O Smith, R Kafer, F Tuilagi; A Goode, H Ellis; P Freshwater, R Cockerill (capt; D West 54), D Garforth, L Deacon, B Kay, L Moody (M Corry 77), W Johnson, J Kronfeld.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir (M Tucker 22-26), P Jorgensen, J Leslie (Tucker 72), B Cohen; P Grayson (J Brooks, 28), M Dawson; T Smith, S Thompson (D Richmond 69), M Stewart, J Ackermann, J Phillips (O Brouzet 45), A Blowers, G Seely, B Pountney (capt;)

Referee: T Spreadbury (Bristol)

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