Leicester and Northampton served up good and bad in their 19-19 draw at Welford Road – pulverising contact in and after the tackle, overlaps missed in the red zone, dissent – and now they head to Ulster and Castres respectively to discover whether they are good enough in Europe.
The referee, JP Doyle, showed Leicester’s sometime England second-row Louis Deacon a yellow card during a ding-dong second half on Saturday. A four-letter outburst had cost Northampton’s captain, Dylan Hartley, dear in May’s Premiership final between these teams. Deacon’s language this time was less industrial but Doyle was heard to tell the champions’ captain, Toby Flood: “He came screaming over at me, demanding what I do – unacceptable.”
It proved Doyle’s resolve in a match that showed how many marginal calls the officials are faced with. He had already decided Courtney Lawes, Deacon’s opposite number who was having a tremendous match of big tackles and constructive running, was going to the sin bin, too, for lying on top of Niki Goneva after halting a break by the Fijian. It was the cue for a woeful final 10 minutes for Northampton that included Flood’s penalty for the Lawes illegality followed by a try for Ed Slater converted by Flood to level the scores.
So there was no first win for Northampton at Welford Road since 2007, but no ninth win in a row in the East Midlands derby for Leicester, either – although that might have been the outcome if Jordan Crane had kept control as a last-minute Leicester scrum motored forwards, rather than allowing Saints’ scrum-half Lee Dickson to nick the ball.
Slater, who had scored in the 74th minute from a superb flat pass by Leicester’s replacement scrum-half, David Mele, summed up the Tigers’ feelings: “We put ourselves in a vulnerable position in that last 10 minutes, when Deacs got sin-binned – but those things spur us on.”
Jim Mallinder, the Northampton head coach, considered one loss in five Premiership matches – three away to Harlequins, Gloucester and Leicester – a solid start to the season. “When you’ve picked up two points at Welford Road, it’s not the end of the world,” said Mallinder. “Credit to Leicester – Toby Flood was outstanding in that last 15, 20 minutes. But our team played well, we defended comfortably and we’ve had a tough run, so we’re doing all right.”
Luther Burrell’s shoulder injury may keep him out of Northampton’s trip to the French champions on Saturday – and was untimely for England too with the centres Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi already ruled out of next month’s three internationals – but Sam Dickinson at No 8 is driving the Saints on. It may be overdoing it just yet to describe Dickinson as an English version of the All Blacks’ Kieran Read but, with his dynamic ability to eat up ground from a standing start, the former Rotherham player offers something different to his positional counterparts Billy Vunipola of Saracens and Gloucester’s Ben Morgan.
Leicester were missing nine experienced players – including five first choices – to Northampton’s one (albeit the important second row Christian Day).
But Flood was worried nevertheless that one training session in the six-day turnaround to Friday’s match in Belfast might not be enough to correct the errors in ball retention and distribution that allowed Northampton to lead 19-9 with a 12-phase try by Alex Corbisiero and a conversion and four penalties by Steve Myler. “We talked about physicality but didn’t get into our normal rhythm of how we play,” said Flood. “It seems to always be when we have the ball that we make these errors, and that’s my role, to make sure everything’s ticking.”
It looked worrying when Flood was unsteady on his feet in the closing stages, considering his recent record of concussion, but the England fly-half dismissed it as one of those things that “happens 20 times a year”.
He has played at Ulster’s Ravenhill ground only in a pre-season match, having missed Leicester ’s 41-7 loss there in January last year through injury.
“I think it’ll be an absolutely unbelievable atmosphere, and we’ve got to meet the challenge head on,” said Flood. “Ulster are an outstanding side and if you give them momentum, just like Northampton, they’ll crucify you. It’s a massive challenge for us, to rest up, look at things on video more than anything else and manage ourselves.
“Obviously without world class players in certain positions it really does affect you but there’s something to be said for how the guys responded to that. We spoke before the game, it’s about who’s in the changing room, rather than who’s not. You listen to the Northampton guys and I think they’ll be absolutely devastated they let a 10-point lead slip.”
It was an absorbing match as long as you weren’t looking for broken-field magic – no long-range gallops from George North here – or flashy line breaks. When Northampton found themselves compromised at the scrum early on they said ‘fine, we’ll have a go at you with our driving maul’. The scoreline was 3-0 to Northampton – a penalty by Steve Myler, from 50 metres – when an offence closer to the Leicester posts gave Hartley a decision to make. Northampton preened themselves, said ‘pah!’ to the idea of going 6-0 up and kicked for the line-out. But Leicester held the drive after Tom Wood’s catch from Hartley’s throw and Saints were unable to get the ball to the ground to have the scrum put-in.
It did not feel definitive at the time but for all Northampton’s advantage in territory, and going through the phases, there was a suspect body language as the minutes ticked away that intriguingly calls into question whether they are quite ready to assume the mantle of champions.