Northampton 19 Leicester 24: Varndell double sinks Northampton

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The Midlands' two heavyweights spent the best part of two hours in front of another sell-out crowd at Franklin's Gardens last night, slogging it out for a top-four finish, and a Heineken Cup place next season.

A wonderfully vibrant contest was edged deservedly by Leicester. Matches between these two have rarely lacked for physicality and in this one the bruising started early. An explosive start, endorsed by two dreadful Northampton mistakes. Ben Cohen received the ball deep in Saints' half, threw it infield to Bruce Reihana who kicked it long, straight to Alex Tuilagi who made 50 metres. Possession was retained for Tom Varndell to cross on the right. Sam Vesty converted.

Cohen then made a dreadful hash of trying to run out of goal, became trapped, which was the signal for Leo Cullen and Graham Rowntree to give Carlos Spencer some clout.

Spencer retaliated in a flurry of punches, so he and Rowntree were sent to the sin bin. Reihana redeemed himself with two penalties.

Vesty then missed a simple penalty, before Saints' No 8 Daniel Browne shredded the Tigers' defence for a stunning try, Reihana tagged on the extras and Northampton were in front for the first time in the match. Their lead was short lived as Tuilagi galloped in for a long-range try, Vesty added the goal points, so Leicester turned round 14-13 ahead.

After the break, the action was as unremitting as it had been beforehand. Both teams pressed hard in a thrilling exposition of run-it-from-everywhere rugby.

Reihana banged over two more penalties, Vesty got another, and it was locked at 19-17 to Saints when Varndell struck again. Andy Goode, who had replaced Austin Healey, converted form wide out. Leicester were back in front and that-despite losing James Buckland to the sin-bin in the 77th minute, in a breathless finish-was where thy stayed.

Northampton: Try Browne; Conversion Reihana; Penalties Reihana 4; Leicester: Tries Varndell 2, Tuilagi; Conversions Vesty 2, Goode; Penalty Vesty.

Northampton: Reihana (co-capt); Lamont, Clarke, Quinlan, Cohen; Spencer, Robinson; Smith, Thompson (co-capt), Barnard (Budgen, 62), Browne, Lord (Gerard, 68), Tupai (Lewitt, 58), Fox (Harding, 58), Browne.

Leicester: Murphy (Smith, h-t); Tuilagi, Hipkiss (Gibson, 51), Vesty, Varndell; Healey (Goode, 55), Bemand; Rowntree (Holford. 42), Chuter (Buckland, h-t), White, Cullen, Kay, Deacon (Holford, 9-19; Hamilton, 19), Moody (Jennings, 61), Corry (capt).

Referee: T Spreadury (Somerset).