For the vast majority of this match Tigers were second best in almost all aspects. Out muscled, out thought and out fought the Saints were enjoying a dominant display at Welford Road and with 10 minutes remaining looked set to end Jim Mallinder’s Welford Road hoodoo as they led by 10 points.
But then the Tigers finally woke up. David Mele and Dan Bowden were introduced from the bench; Tigers first subs coming as late as the 70th minute, and immediately upped the ante. Bowden put Goneva through a tiny hole in the Saints midfield to burst from halfway to the 22m line. Courtney Lawes, so often the villain, gave away the penalty and Tigers were back in touch.
The atmosphere even got to the referee who lost his rag with Tigers frustrations at Saints penalty count, 18 Saints penalties to only 7 from Leicester. Louis Deacon saw yellow for dissent whilst Lawes was binned for failing to roll away. Back within 7.
A clever kick from Mele gave Saints a 22m restart and Tigers good territory. More impressive carrying from Bowden and Goneva forced Saints to give away yet more penalties. To the corner. A drive. Yet another penalty. The Corner again. This time quickly to Flood; He’s through! No, he’s stopped short. Mele frantically tap dancing on the forest of Northampton arms. It’s free now.
Mele moves laterally attracting the fringe defence. This is exactly what Austin Healey was demonstrating two weeks ago with Danny Care. He spots Saints front rower Denman turn his shoulders in and puts Ed Slater through the hole. The local boy raised in Saints territory. I can’t think of a better player to score the try. Flood converts quickly for the drawing conversion.
19-19 is the final score but that wasn’t the end of the game. As befits two cracking and aggressive sides both wanted the win, not the draw. Samu Manoa, the giant Californian, blocked Mele’s box kick but Flood was first to react and cleared to Foden. He countered but strong Tigers pressure forced the Saints back. Salvi and Crane gang tackled Tom Wood stripping him of the ball and Flood kicked deep into Saints territory. The inch perfect kick forced Foden to clear to touch.
From the lineout, one phase and Tigers quickly set for the drop goal. It’s not the best pass but Flood knocks it on, for once JP Doyle’s partial blindness benefits the Tigers and he misses it. Another phase and this time it is Mele in full French madness mode with the snap 50m drop kick. He scuffs it. But you can’t mark a drop kick nor can it go for a scrum back, so whilst not the best option it was by no means the worst.
From the 22 Saints kick long and Crane runs it back. With less than a minute on the clock Flood puts in an inch perfect kick to the corner. All the pressure is on Hartley now. Will he bottle it like usual? He’s in front of the sedate GNC stand rather than the Crumbie baying for his blood. He twitches. He dummies. He’s bottled it again!
Deacon and Lawes return from the bin for the final confrontation. Tigers take the scrum. It’s a clean engagement. The drive is on. Saints are going backwards at a rate of knots and surely it’s only a matter of time until Doyle puts his arm out or goes straight under the posts?
But no! Dickson gambles and takes the ball from the back of the scrum. Doyle plays on and now its Tigers scrambling back under pressure. Thompstone, Flood and Bowden do incredibly well to keep Dickson penned into the touchline as if he gets into midfield its game over. He passes to winger Elliot whose kick forward is into touch and finishes the match.
Back to the scrum a second though and Tigers will feel hard done by. If Crane gets his foot back to it before Dickson does there is no way the referee would rule he has kicked it back in, so like Schrödinger’s Cat the ball is both in the scrum and out of it. For me Mele has to be closer to the 8 offering some protection and potentially looking for the pushover try too.
Back to the beginning and as the match started Northampton set their stall out immediately with Sam Dickinson taking Blaine Scully out with a swinging arm to the throat. Scully needed extensive treatment but was able to carry on after passing the pitch-side concussion tests.
Northampton’s indiscipline is best summed up by this stat, every single one of their starting pack conceded a penalty. I repeat from earlier Northampton gave away a massive 18 penalties during the game to Leicester’s 7.
Their first two were in quick succession at a scrum then ruck to give Flood the chance to open the scoring but his long range attempt went wide. It was Northampton who bossed the first half with their cavalier attitude in the ruck not only slowing down any possession Leicester did manage but securing good ball on their own too.
Only the scrum and Saints indiscipline allowed Tigers to keep a foothold in the first half.
Myler was perfect with the boot to punish the few penalties Tigers did allow and put the Saints 3-0 nil up.
Luther Burrell saw yellow for a spear tackle and Flood was on hand to level up the scores after a quarter of an hour. Tigers failed to take advantage of the extra man though as the 10 minute period ended with Saints up 6-3 after Julian Salvi entered the ruck from the side.
Saints were dominating the collisions and the territory as they pushed further ahead when catching Jordan Crane holding on around half way.
A period of greater fluency for the Tigers was rewarded when the Saints were again pinged for not rolling away from the tackle. Mulipola was particularly prominent in a series of powerful surges. Flood’s penalty brought the Tigers back within 3.
The only clear try scoring chance of the half came right as it ended. From a Northampton lineout the ball was spun wide to Ben Foden who chipped through for the mega-bucks George North to chase. North looked to have won the race for the ball but literally let it slip through his fingers. Perhaps in future he should visualise a wad of £50 notes instead as he’d never let those out of his grasp.
The try was coming as Northampton upped the pace at the begging of the second half. They were powerful and precise as they swept through the Tigers half in over ten phases. This summer’s other big money mover Alex Corbiseiro was the man to finally drive over the line. Some consolation for his torrid day in the scrum.
And it should have been more for a now rampant Saints. Despite Flood’s penalty after another Saints offence in the ruck Northampton were completely on top in open play, driving the Tigers back at every collision. Sam Dickinson, the bald headed number eight, powered over the line but Ben Youngs and Blaine Scully’s limpet like defence saved the Tigers as he was held up. Lee Dickson fed at the scrum and the pressure was relieved.
In many ways that was the end of Northampton’s chances as Tigers grew into the final twenty minutes gaining more and more chances. First Flood danced through a hole only for Jordan Crane’s pass to drift into touch. Then Ed Slater fumbled the ball only 5 yards out after some lovely hands from Crane and Kitchener. Goneva dropped an unsympathetic pass from Ben Youngs too as the pressure on the Saints began to mount.
A controversial scrum penalty, which did not tally with the previous interpretations of standing up, looked to have put Northampton clear at 10 points up with 15 minutes to go but as we all know, beware of the injured Tiger!