An East Midlands derby is no place for the faint-hearted and yesterday was as antagonistic and fractious a match as could be without cards being shown. In the end it was won by three penalties from Shane Drahm and a last-minute try by Andrew Blowers, but the architect of the victory was the Saints' discipline and the Tigers' lack of it, both in manner and in control of the ball.
It was never going to be an elegant spectacle after torrential rain before the match and with both sides missing key players, either through injury or the glory run-out at Twickenham; it was always likely to be decided by mistakes. The Tigers lost because they made more and became more frustrated, exemplified by Martin Johnson's frequent tussles with the Saints forwards.
Indeed he could have been yellow-carded in the 68th minute although with the conditions dictating a scrappy affair, it would have been harsh as he was no more culpable, although a little more visible, than the Saints master-aggressor, pilferer and try-scorer Blowers.
In fact Blowers was vital. The ball was pinging around the fringes like a slippery pinball and frequently it was the New Zealander, or his impressive back-row colleague Darren Fox, who grabbed it. Similarly, when they had a chance at goal, Drahm took it and his kicks in the 32nd, 48th and 59th minutes were priceless in such a low-scoring contest.
It was not all good for the Saints, however, as Matt Dawson lasted only 27 minutes on his return to club rugby, a calf injury forcing him to hobble off. His replacement, Mark Robinson, excelled in general play as well as making the break that set up the try and Wayne Smith, the Saints head coach, floated the idea that Dawson may even move to the centre.
"I think he has the ability," said Smith, "but I'm not saying we are going to do it. He's run there a few times already and today he was covering there as we only had three backs on the bench." World Cup hero one week, utility back the next.
At times the match resembled a bizarre production of elephants on ice. The surface water was so plentiful that turning and keeping balance was difficult and, when the bigger men went to ground, bow waves to excite the keenest surfer traveled across the pitch. "In conditions like that you have to play simple rugby," said Dean Richards, Leicester's director of rugby, "and we said at half-time that the side that makes least mistakes would win."
He was right. They had chances, a penalty in the 29th minute that demanded a trademark catch and drive for the line that was reversed for off-the-ball shenanigans by Will Johnson and a five-metre scrum early in the second half that was fumbled, but too frequently they knocked on. Such was their struggle that they were unable to score at all, a missed penalty kick in the second minute being the closest although with little solidity underfoot, Ramiro Pez failed to hit the ball 40 yards.
In contrast, Saints adjusted quicker to the demands made by the elements and kicked long to turn the defence. It was smart and sensible, a point that particularly pleased Smith as he relished the first home and away victories over the Tigers in the Premiership. "In terms of understanding of what had to be done it was the best combining of backs and forwards all year," he said.
Northampton: N Beal (J Brooks, 41); J Clarke, C Hyndman, J Leslie (capt), B Reihana; S Drahm, M Dawson (M Robinson, 27); T Smith, D Richmond (M Miles, 80), R Morris (C Budgen, 55), R Hunter (J Phillips, 74), M Connors, G Seely, A Blowers, D Fox.
Leicester: J v. d. Westhuyzen; N Baxter, L Lloyd, G Gelderbloom, F Tuilagi; R Pez, A Healey; G Rowntree, J Richards, J White, M Johnson, B Kay, W Johnson (H Tuilagi, 60), A Balding, N Back.
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).
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