Sunday, 21 December 2014

Derby Day Defeat

Tigers suffered a derby day defeat despite Northampton spending 56 minutes with a man less following Dylan Hartley's dismissal for an ugly elbow to Matt Smith's face.  Tigers and Saints scored three tries each but Stephen Myler was more effective with the boot slotting 8 points to Williams & Burns combined effort of 4 points.

But to lay the blame solely on the kickers would be wrong.   Tigers defence was shocking in the second half, with a man advantage Saints created overlaps at will, and the home side dominated both possesion and territory.  ESPN's "Match Stats" records Saints having 76% of territory in the second half (what that exactly means I couldn't tell you but its not likely to be good.).

The kicking strategy from hand was simply not good enough.  With a man advantage you should be able to kick to land not hand, as the old saying goes.  If the kick is not on then there must be space somewhere in the defensive line.  Instead Williams' kicks were almost always fielded by Ken Pisi, George North or James Wilson; not a trio you want running back at you.

Both times we got the ball into their 22 we scored tries relatively easily.  But we barely had the ball inside their half let alone their 22.

The first 20 minutes was Tigers best spell, dominating the scrum but giving away very soft line out penalties that only J.P. Doyle will know what for.  From a terrific Salvi turnover Tigers spread the ball wide left with Goneva making inroads to the 5m line.  Northampton did well to bring him down but cynically infringed to slow the ball down.  On the advantage play Smith drove Hartley out with a text book ruck clearance, the Saints captain took exception to this and after the whistle slammed the point of his elbow up Smith's nose.

Doyle's initial reaction was, baffling, only a yellow card; claiming it was a forearm to the jaw.  Sean Davey, the TMO, insisted that it be upgraded to a red.  When Sean Davey is having to tell the referee to stop being anti-Tigers you know its going to be a bad day.

Dorian West stormed down to the touchline to harangue the fourth official, I await with bated breath the e-mail campaign from the Saints fans offended by his behaviour.

Saints sacrificed centre Stephenson rather than a forward but it made no difference as Tigers mercilessly drove the home side over for a penalty try.  Unfortunately that was where the mercilessness ended.  Some weak refereeing in the face of a home crowd gave Myler the chance to nibble into the lead and Doyle evened the numbers up for ten minutes after the softest high tackle call I have ever seen on Tom Croft.

Tigers lead 7-6 at the break and were surely confident of the win.  But in the second half we were out psyched, out muscled, out thought and out fought.  Northampton wanted this and the triffling matter of missing Hartley was not going to stop them.

Tigers lost Blaine Scully to injury at half time and with him went a lot of defensive solidness and our energy.  He is not the perfect winger, I could not see him making the kind of break Benjamin did for the third try, but he energises those around him.  It was down Benjamin's wing that Northampton scored all three of their tries.

The first was whilst Croft was still off; North took the ball at first receiver and cut out 4 Tigers defenders with a beautiful pass, Ma'afu fed Waller who dummied his way past Benjamin and over the line.  For me Benjamin has to smash Waller and see if the prop can make the testing final pass.

Wilson missed the conversion and the game settled down for 15 minutes.  Freddie Burns was on for Matt Smith, booed from the field by the Saints fans for his crime of being assaulted, and made a delightful shimmying break through the midfield to the 5m line.  Tigers recycled quickly and Goneva burst through two ineffectual tackles to give Tigers the lead 12-11 on 60 minutes.  Williams missed the testing wide conversion.

Saints struck back with a piece of clinical finishing.  Myler spotted the blindside overlap; drew in Benjamin as the last man and manufactured a cheeky off load that I'd doubt you'd see in a text book.  Foden raced away using the supporting North as a decoy to create confusion in Tait's mind before having the strength to hold off Ben Youngs.

At this point it looked like Saints were going to race away to a big winning margin.  But Tigers dug in.  And kept kicking.  And kept kicking.  It was baffling, frustrating and stupid.  And it worked.  

Mat Tait chased his own up and under.  The lithe full back tackled Foden and in the ruck slipped the ball on our side.  Crane fumbled, but backwards, I think, I'm sure, in clearing the ball wide but it mattered not.  It went to Benjamin on half way.  He went inside.  He went outside.  He scorched past Phil Dowson and curved into the 22 beating more men.  He couldn't quite make it but Youngs was there quickly and whipped it away to Burns and through Ghiraldini onto Goneva.  Burns nailed the conversion from the same spot Williams missed the first and Tigers had the 3 point lead with ten minutes to go.

Northampton huffed and the they puffed.  Could we do it?  We were holding, just barely but we were holding them.   We couldn't get the ball and they were steaming forwards, their big beasts of Manoa, Lawes, Dickinson and Burrell were coming to the fore.

They got a penalty and kicked for the corner.  If we could hold the maul we could win the match.  But the Saints were confident.  You could see it in them.  Flowing from us folding in the semi, they fancied it.  I fancied us but there was just a niggle.  Just a random thread hanging loose.

We smashed back the maul.  Yes.  They came left.  We held.  They came left.  We didn't.  Burrell took three men to tackle him.  We were sucked in.  Again.  And they scored through Elliott.

We didn't deserve to win, but that's not the point.  We could have won with 3 minutes of better defending, or better kicking.

Tigers are now 11 points off second place with 12 games to go.  The comeback has to start now.

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