Leicester Tigers celebrated a record 10th League Title, their 4th in 7 years, after defeating local rivals Northampton 37-17 at Twickenham. Tigers scored four tries to Northampton's three with Northampton having to overcome their captain being sent off in disgrace after repeatedly swearing at referee Wayne Barnes.
Tigers started the match in fine form with Niall Morris finishing off a stunning team move after Toby Flood's weaving run and fantastic floated pass. Flood's influence on the early stages was crucial and didn't Northampton know it. Just like in the 2011 Premiership Semi-Final Flood was the target of a barrage of late hits after the ball had been passed. Lawes caught him 4 times before his efforts were rewarded with Flood having to leave the field injured. With a similar incident injuring Morgan Parra out of the 2008 Amlin Challenge Cup Final you have to ask is this a tactic explicitly from Jim Mallinder or can he simply not control his players?
The third of these challenges incensed Richard Cockerill as it was easily the worst and caused Flood the concussion that ultimately forced his early exit. Dorian West had the cheek to suggest he was trying to intimidate the officials, let he without sin cast the first stone Dorian. Maybe he should try to intimidate officials instead of injure opposition players.
Cockerill branded Saints of "embarrassing behaviour" after their tactics of late hits and Dylan Hartley's abuse of the match official that cost him his match in a heated interview with Mark Durden-Smith after the final whistle where Cockerill defended his team, his position and himself with great vigour. He is plain speaking and passionate; I wouldn't swap him for anyone else in the world.
But back to the match as we are not yet there.
Barnes made a tight call that Manu Tuilagi had not released in the tackle, to my eyes if he had released him anymore he would have been "not held" but such is rugby. Lee Dickson took the quick tap and freed Luther Burrell on the outside, he took on the last man and put Stephen Myler over in the corner. The conversion was missed for a 10-5 deficit.
With Flood now off and Tigers demoralised and disorganised the Saints were camped into our 22. Mat Tait take a bow for his next few actions. He was the fringe defence, three point stance set, that held the Saints prop Brian Mujati up over the line. Tigers won a scrum then a penalty and cleared the lines. Just a few minutes later and Tait was offered up a huge gap and ate up the ground to take the play from inside the edge of his own 22 to within 5 yards of the try line. Ford decided not to risk the long pass and recycled the ball with Saints then infringing. Ford slotted the points for an 8 point lead.
Then what but for Dylan's moment of madness would have been one of the biggest decisions of the match. Saints had attacked Tigers down the left hand flank which had yielded their first try. Ken Pisi wrapped around the back of Ben Foden to isolate Niall Morris as last man, with Morris committed he passed to Jamie Elliot on the outside. Elliot took the tackle from Tait sweeping across. His wild chuck of a pass inside was picked up by Ben Foden running a clever inside support line. Foden was clear to the line. Surely?
No! Graham Kitchener tracking back had snagged him. He rolled Foden on his back and wrestled to keep hold of him as Foden squirmed like a greased pig desperate to avoid the trip to abattoir. The TMO was called. Barnes has a reputation of passing the buck but this time he had no choice. The Saints thought he had grounded it the Tigers convinced he had not.
The pictures were hardly conclusive. He definitely didn't get it down initially. He definitely put a a foot in touch at some point. And he probably got the ball to the ground at one point near the end.
To the relief of the Tigers fans he ruled touch in goal. No tricky Saints 5m scrum to deal with.
Now we are here. The big moment. The madness.
It started with 1:51 on the clock. Only 2 minutes after the TMO call Barnes had given Leicester a succession of penalties in the scrums marching us down the field. Barnes can clearly be heard saying "This isn't how you behave as a captain. Ok. Please keep your comments to yourself, or I'll deal with it by way of penalty", Hartley then tries to interrupt "Listen to me please, just listen to me, if you talk to me like that and I think it's to me I'll have to deal with it. Understand? Ok Scrum."
Another scrum penalty to Leicester but Ford misses as the clock ticks to zero. Myler takes the 22, he wants to put it straight out and end the half. But you can't do that. After France did it to end a 6 Nations game against Wales a few years ago they changed the rules. I've seen Myler try to blame Barnes's accent in the press but that is ridiculous. You are a extremely well paid professional player. You have to know the rules. Especially if you are going to try and pull a fast one. If he hadn't been too clever by half and just booted it away we surely would have just kicked it out anyway.
But he didn't. Myler kicked it straight out in a very obvious and deliberate way seconds after the referee had shouted "You can't do that" at him. Idiot.
Now the scrum. Now the abuse. Now the shame.
I don't want to castigate Hartley. Regular readers of the blog will know I've called Barnes worse and it was an instinctive honest reaction. An ignoble one sure, an unpleasant one fine, but honest. He didn't filter his thoughts as he was disappointed and angry with the referee. But Barnes has literally a minute earlier told Hartley not to talk to him like that. You can't really argue with Barnes call given the circumstances. We know he loves the limelight and the "big call" you can't give him the opportunity to do it.
For those that missed it he called Wayne Barnes a "fucking cheat".
After the match Mallinder tried to invoke the "Back defence". Namely "I wasn't abusing you, I was abusing my opposite number and international team mate." Much like in 1996 that excuse clearly doesn't wash and might make things worse. For me contrition and apology would be a better bet. A disciplinary panel would surely consider a sending off sufficient, at worst a one match ban, if you gave an early and full apology. This stinks of trying to play the system and will surely raise the hackles of the Judge Jeff Blackett.
What a half.
As the sides changed ends Mike Haywood the replacement hooker came on for winger Jamie Elliot as Northampton didn't want to be a forward down.
Northampton's second half effort was a credit to the club and the players. They belied their man down tag to play with a real belief and precision. They played fast wide and off loaded, for all but one crucial time, correctly.
What did for them was not the red card, it was the 11 point deficit incurred at the same time. They had too much to do and Tigers always had that cushion.
The first two tries of the second half were corkers. Saints was a real team effort, Manoa, Day and Haywood took contact then released the ball to keep the move alive. Despite their man advantage Tigers found themselves outflanked as the ball was spun wider. James Wilson drew in the last man and Foden was clear to the line for real this time. But Graham Kitchener was still lurking in the shadows ready to piss all over his chips.
For every way Saints try was team work personified Kitchener's try was individual athleticism at its peak. Ben Youngs disrupted Dickson at the base of the scrum to turn it over and span it wide to Allen. He straightened the line and set the ruck. Youngs then moved the ball back into the wreckage of the scrum. Kitchener received it. And scored. He ghosted through a gap between Tonga'huia and Mujati that I didn't think was there then retained the ball under a challenge from Foden as he was scoring. I haven't done it justice. Look it up if you haven't seen it, one of the best individual tries from a lock you will ever see.
Tigers looked to have put the game to bed when George Ford scythed through the Saints defence on 55 minutes. But a lack of pace and bulk meant he couldn't reach the line nor bully his way over. As Tigers muffed the chance thankfully Barnes had spotted that the man on his inside shoulder had been taken out without the ball. Ford glanced the penalty in off the upright in a needlessly stressful kick.
Northampton responded immediately with another excellent try. Ford's indecisiveness caused Youngs to kick from a poorer position than he would have liked and Foden ran it back with purpose. A slip from Jordan Crane as the play swept right gave Saints a huge overlap and Luther Burrell did well to straighten the line and power forwards. He was caught short and Dickson did well to claim his sloppy off load and the try.
They were Northampton's last points as Tigers pressed home their advantage late on. Tuilagi scored from the half way line after some patient Tigers play, breaking Tom Wood's tackle and a helpful block from Geoff Parling. It is difficult to say whether Van Velze would have got to him and Parling was merely standing still so didn't actively take anyone out. In the final reckoning it didn't matter though.
The icing on the cake was Goneva's third try in three matches. George Pisi now on for Saints tried the risky off load to keep the ball alive as he attacked down the right. Steve Mafi was first to the bouncing ball and raced away towards the line. Keeping a cool head he turned it back inside with a basketball style push as the pressure came on and Goneva was clear for the final try. The Saints fans had seen enough by now and just like at Franklin's Gardens in March they marched home early not wanting to see the end.
Geordan Murphy lifted the trophy, John Terry style in full kit, with Martin Castrogiovanni as two Tigers legends ended their playing careers with the club. This was Murphy's 8th Premiership crown. It is difficult to see that record being challenged anytime soon.