Inside the Tigers’ Den - Leicester lose the game that had it all

Pictures by Linda Dawson NNL-140517-141808006
Pictures by Linda Dawson NNL-140517-141808006
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If there was no such thing as a league I would pay good money to just watch arch rivals Leicester Tigers and Northampton battle each other each week.

You get the feeling that unlike so many realms of professional sport the result really means something to the players, not just another fat pay check.

If there were nothing at stake these two teams would continue to batter each other to within an inch of their rugby lives. But on Friday there was everything at stake - a place in the Aviva Premiership final - and the latest derby match took the already blistering rivalry to new heights.

Northampton booked their place in the final with a comeback win of epic proportions, winning 21-20 with a try in the 78th minute for man of the match Tom Wood to beat the odds and come from behind despite being a player down.

The Saints were down to just 14 players for much of the second half after Salesi Ma’afu punched Tom Youngs off the ball to earn a red.

It was just one of many incidents in a game on the edge of boiling point from the first minute to the last.

Tom Youngs, who had instigated the fight, was also shown yellow and Tigers centre Dan Bowden was carded for a tip tackle on Tom Collins in what Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill identified as the game’s turning point.

In the first half the Aviva Premiership’s top try scorer Niki Goneva was shown yellow after he picked up Phil Dowson and kicked the ball out of the hands of Saints scrum half Kahn Fotuali’in in one frantic play.

Leicester flew out of the blocks and went up early after Toby Flood kicked a tight-angled penalty. But Northampton came back with vigour and but for a few instances of bad luck would have been well ahead.

First skipper Dowson went over the line after an overthrown line out landed in his arms five metres out, but referee JP Boyle ruled it out for an early line out jump.

Then, as so often is the case with a classy act like Leicester who come to life in the play-offs, Tigers had one shot to score a try and made no mistake.

It was a try that defined everything good about Leicester - power, skill, commitment and balance. Tom Youngs ran like only he can, carrying two players on his back to turn the home defence. Manu Tuilagi then broke the line and shrugged off powerful tackles raining down on him before Tait used his delicate footwork to dance within feet of the line. The ball was quickly recycled and with the overlap considerable it was just a matter of who was going to score; in the end Flood fed Tuilagi.

But Leicester were soon in trouble and Goneva was shown yellow for slowing the ball down because Leicester were reeling from a Ben Foden break and it was only Goneva’s desperate act which stopped a try. Myler added the penalty to add injury to insult.

But Leicester’s side of battle-hardened warriors dug deep and despite being a man down scored their second try through Ben Youngs who was playing like he still has a point to prove to England coach Stuart Lancaster, to book a place on the plane to New Zealand this summer.

Logo Mulipola had come off the back of a Tigers line out to great effect and with the defence stretched, Youngs sniped through to score to make it 17-6 at half time.

In the second half the hits continued to rain in, both legal and illegal. Goneva crunched Foden in a thundering hit and was then lucky to stay on the pitch after tackling a Saints player while he was off the pitch trying to take a quick line out.

Leicester’s downfall came with the introduction of scrum half Lee Dickson who upped the pace. And the Saints’ big game players delivered, with their biggest superstar, in terms of both fame and physical size, George North on hand to cross the try line.

A maul had dragged in the Leicester players and North at pace was just too hard to stop for the exhausted limbs.

Myler added the vital conversion to make it a one point game 17-16 to Leicester.

Away from the try scoring there was a game-defining moment of commitment from Leicester stalwart Jordan Crane who dived on a loose ball at the feet of Myler the instant the fly-half was trying to hack the ball out of the stadium.

When Marco Ayerza is steaming down the wing with 70 minutes gone you know it has been a crazy game and it looked like Owen Williams had closed out the game for Leicester with a late penalty to make it 20-16. But then Wood crossed the line to send Franklin’s Gardens into a frenzy as the Saints won their first game against Leicester in 11 attempts.

Saints will face Saracens in the final on May 31.