The East Midlands derby has bragging rights like no other in the Aviva Premiership and this colossal clash oozed rivalry with oh so very evident vibes of revenge resonating around Franklins Gardens. Northampton hadnâ€™t triumphed over the Tigers since 2010.
With a sell out crowd of 13,459, this was set to be a sensational showdown. And as excited and faithful fans bantered and basked in the sunshine, still the baying ‘boos’ resounded around the stadium when referee Wayne Barnes stepped onto the pitch.
And really where do I start in terms of talking points? The fact the final whistle blew with 9 seconds still on the clock? Or the fact the Leicester physio became entangled with the ball in those 9 seconds as Ben Foden politely tried to extricate it, so Northampton could quite rightly take their line out? It seemed a frustrating, bewildering and infuriating finish to say the least; and yet again, one that will be talked about for years to come.
But concentrating on the crux of the game, handbags came out early doors – easy to guess the culprits – Dylan Hartleyâ€™s and Tom Youngâ€™s un-saintly behaviour in my opinion! And with play being stopped early on to investigate an alleged â€˜bitingâ€™ incident, it was anyoneâ€™s guess as to what else lay in store. Little did we know!!
Both teams should have been in no doubt of the pure pace and punishing physicality required here, but it was Tigers who emerged unleashed, with crystal clear commitment, all guns blazing, like a crash of rampaging rhinos wanting their dinner and although Will Hooley kicked the first points onto the board, Tigers succeeded supremely in dictating the dynamics early on; a try from Anthony Allen bagging their initial booty.
As Owen Williams shone, producing all the extras for Tigers and with Stephen Myler out with a pulled hamstring, it fell to the boot of Will Hooley to capitalise on Saintsâ€™ crucial penalty opportunities. However, after his initial success, Hooley then failed to step up at all and with Saintsâ€™ attacking line frequently falling foul of Tigersâ€™ defence; Northampton were reduced to scavenging for territory.
Saints looked like their get up and go had got up and gone. It reminded me of Englandâ€™s performance against France in the initial stages of their RBS6 Nations match. After the last three weeks, a painful sight for the fans faithful at Franklins Gardens
It was three minutes to half time before Saintsâ€™ first possession in Leicester’s 22, with Kahn Fotuali’i darting through Tigersâ€™ defence from 5 metres out and pushing on through a tackle to make his mark; and with Hooleyâ€™s boot failing to obey instructions again, the score stood at 8 -13 at half time â€“ not a convincingly comfortable cushion for the Tigers to relax on in the break.
At the restart, both fly halves â€˜treatedâ€™ the crowd to the well known game of kicking â€˜ping pongâ€™. Then with Owen Williams securing another three points and a growing cushion for Tigers and another attempt from Hooley going way wide, James Wilson finally replaced him.
Play had degenerated, producing a frantic and even more tense and scrappy game, with Goneva going in with high tackles, on more than one occasion.
The last five minutes saw Saints find territory with galloping George North’s exceptional counter attack and it appeared a reinvigorated Northampton had woken up.
But was this too little – too late?
As Ben Youngs and Vereniki Goneva were binned and Leicester were down to just thirteen men, surely Northampton could score? With great team work and a pass out wide to Ethan Waller, he did.
Saintsâ€™ momentum and intensity cranked up a couple of gears but as I alluded to earlier, play was cut short when the ball rolled into touch. Nine seconds showed on the clock in the stadium and to the crowdâ€™s and playerâ€™s amazement, referee Wayne Barnes blew the whistle for full time.
Could this game have been a very different story if Northampton’s driving maul had crossed that try line?
But you play what’s in front of you and for the most part, Leicester and Owen Williams controlled this game beautifully and Will Hooleyâ€™s boots failed to obey their master, big time.
When I spoke to Jim Mallinder after the game, he quite rightly said:
â€œI think Hooley in defence was magnificent, he put in some brilliant tackles but his goal kicking wasn’t quite as accurate as Williams.â€
Another very bad day at the office for the Saints with the full time score 16 â€“ 22.
Northampton must refocus and re-gel. I spoke with Courtney Lawes after the match and from all the highs of the Six Nations he told me:
â€œWe need to stay confident in ourselves, we had a lot of changes coming back into the team and that might have showed today; hopefully we’ll be able to regroup to get some good wins in towards the end of the season.â€
It will be a devastating self-inflicted blow if the team canâ€™t re-find the passion and get back into a strong rhythm with winning ways.
Throwing it all away should not be an option.
As for Tigers – well they want it – theyâ€™ve made that more than clear. Richard Cockerill told me:
â€œBy and large we controlled the game really well – I thought we were the more positive team. I thought we were the better side throughout really.â€
Amongst other things, they demonstrated some very creative and sophisticated play in the first half so what else do they have in their arsenal?
The Aviva Man of the Match and mine too was Ed Slater; his discipline, composure and character showed on the pitch and when I spoke with him after the game he said:
â€œAs a squad we’ve been strong against them the last three seasons, we were confident we could come here and win.â€
Going forward, my questions would be:-
How much of a part does the â€˜man in the middleâ€™ play? A very large part â€“ wouldnâ€™t you say?
When is â€˜full-timeâ€™ not â€˜full-time?â€™ Discuss.
By Rhiannon Chandler-Day
To see more from Rhiannon, please check out her blog at: rhiannonsrugbyunionblog.blogspot.co.uk