While Northampton saved several star names for their semi-final with Saracens next Saturday, they did not spare Leicester’s nerves.
The home team were made to fight hard to claim their own position in the end-of-season play-offs for the 11th consecutive season, scoring one of their two tries while Saints were down to 13 men in the second half.
Leicester will travel to Bath in the semi-finals and on this form the Tigers will be distant second favourites. The pack made Northampton suffer, with tight-head props Gareth Denman and Salesi Ma’afu banished to the sin-bin to initiate a period of uncontested scrums, soon followed by full-back Niall Morris going over for a 19-9 lead after 57 minutes.
But Tom Stephenson’s try for Northampton in the 75th minute had Leicester only eight points up and thankful to see youngster Sam Olver off target with the conversion.
Whereas Northampton rested England internationals Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes, Steve Myler and Luther Burrell, with Dylan Hartley starting on the bench and Wales’ George North still absent after concussion, Leicester were nearer full bore, although they have been afflicted all season by injuries to midfielders Owen Williams, Anthony Allen and Manu Tuilagi.
The forwards did most of what was necessary, no one more than the 40-year-old former All Black lock Brad Thorn, who fished an educated right hand in to steal a crucial Northampton line-out.
Leicester had trailed 9-8 at half-time, thanks to Jordan Crane’s dubious try – obstruction was suspected as the No 8 peeled off a line-out – and an opening penalty by Freddie Burns, set against three penalties from James Wilson.
Champions for the first time last season, Northampton will be heartened by the performance of some of their understudies.
Leicester’s worries increased with prop Logo Mulipola limping off and, although they may not fear a repeat of the 45-0 drubbing they received at Bath back in September, they will need to come up with a masterplan in the next few days if they hope to cope with the West Country club’s brilliant backs.
Tries: Crane, Morris
Pens: Burns 3, Bell
Pens: Wilson 3
Leicester: N Morris; A Thompstone, M Tait, C Loamanu (J Robert, 71), V Goneva; F Burns (T Bell, 67), B Youngs (capt, S Harrison, 67); L Mulipola (M Ayerza, 48), T Youngs (H Thacker, 67), D Cole (F Balmain, 69), B Thorn (S de Chaves, 58), G Kitchener, E Slater, J Salvi, J Crane.
Northampton: A Tuala; J Elliott (H Packman, 48; Ma’afu, 52-53), D Waldouck, T Stephenson, T Collins; J Wilson (S Olver, 67), L Dickson (K Fotuali’i, 48); A Corbisiero (A Waller, 52), M Haywood (D Hartley, 67), S Ma’afu (G Denman, 51-52, 64), S Dickinson (C Day, 67), J Craig, P Dowson (capt), T Harrison (B Nutley, 56), J Fisher.
Referee: M Carley (Kent).
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