Anthony Watson states case for England recall despite Leicester Tigers defeat
Leicester Tigers 18 Northampton Saints 19
Around an hour after his Northampton Saints side had held off Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, snapping a four-match losing streak against their nearest rivals with a performance full of character, Phil Dowson shrugged and delivered an indisputable line. “Rugby’s weird,” he said. Who could argue?
Dowson was responding to a question about navigating international windows. As with most things in English rugby union at the moment, it felt as if this East Midlands derby would have to defy its circumstances. Suspensions, injuries and a reduced salary cap all challenge the depth of Premiership squads enough without domestic fixtures clashing with international windows. While the concept is nothing new, this was the third time in four regular-season league meetings between Leicester and Northampton that the game has been shorn of its England players.
Saints had to deal with the absence of Lewis Ludlam, David Ribbans, Alex Mitchell, Fin Smith and Tommy Freeman, as well as Courtney Lawes, who will join up with Steve Borthwick’s party this week as he continues to treat a problematic calf muscle. Tigers had seven missing, some of whom were standing in the terraces.
To be clear, Leicester had been inconsistent this season before Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield left to join England last month. Still, losing their top coaches mid-way through a title defence has seemed unprecedented. Then you factor in the spread of their England cohort. Tigers have contributed two scrum-halves, Ben Youngs and Jack van Poortvliet, and two tighthead props, Dan Cole and Joe Heyes, to Borthwick’s group. That was always going to exacerbate matters.
More Tigers could link up with their old club boss. Anthony Watson oozed quality for Leicester, and will surely come into the England equation over the course of the Six Nations. Richard Wigglesworth, Leicester’s interim coach, cut a highly-frustrated figure at the final whistle. Broaching the subject of a potential call-up for Watson, impeccable in the air and explosive over the ground on his return from injury, the former scrum-half was tight-lipped. “I don’t know,” said Wigglesworth. “That’s a question for Steve.”
Ollie Sleightholme was the try-scoring hero for Saints, skating past Watson in the second half following an exceptional, back-handed offload from the impressive James Ramm. Tom James also shone at scrum-half for the triumphant visitors with George Furbank, deputising at fly-half, kicking 14 points. All of that rewarded Northampton’s industrious pack.
Harry Potter scored twice for Tigers, who could still field a back row of Hanro Liebenberg, Tommy Reffell and Jasper Wiese in a line-up that also included Julián Montoya and Handré Pollard. In truth, Saints deserved the victory on account of gritty defence, even when down to 14 due to an early yellow card for Ramm, and set-piece graft. An excellent cover tackle from Sleightholme on Guy Porter in the dying moments stopped Leicester from granting Freddie Burns a fairytale farewell, though the latter received a heartfelt reception upon being replaced.
These two sides had come together on this ground in the play-off semi-final last season. One wonders whether Borthwick and Sinfield would be preparing England for the Six Nations had Northampton seized their chances that day. As it happened, Tigers went to Twickenham and Burns drop-kicked them to glory. Since then, to a degree, Leicester’s own success has been a hindrance.
“The more successful clubs are generally, the more players they lose in the international window, plus injuries, plus disciplinary issues,” Dowson said of Northampton’s approach. “I think the key is having a number of guys in the squad with a clear idea of the game plan and have a clear understanding of their role is within that.”
Burns, grounded, affable, and charmingly fallible, now moves to the Highlanders in Otago. It is another setback for Tigers. There is time for them to recover and reach the play-offs, but this result leaves them in desperate need of momentum. Conversely, a rare away win for Dowson’s charges consolidated their place in the chasing pack behind Saracens and Sale Sharks.
Scoring: 5-0 Potter try, 7-0 Pollard conversion, 7-3 Furbank penalty, 10-3 Pollard, 10-6 Furbank penalty, 10-9 Furbank penalty, 10-12 Furbank, 15-12 Potter try, 15-17 Sleightholme try, 15-19 Furbank conversion, 18-19 Burns penalty.
Leicester Tigers: F Burns (J Gopperth, 68); A Watson, M Scott, G Porter, H Potter; H Pollard (H Simmons, 45), S Edwards (T Whiteley, 68); J Whitcombe (T West, 57), J Montoya (C Clare, 75), W Hurd (D Richardson, 63), H Wells, E Snyman (G Martin, 57), H Liebenberg, T Reffell (O Cracknell, half-time), J Wiese.
Northampton Saints: J Ramm; C Skosan, M Proctor, R Hutchinson, O Sleighthome; G Furbank, T James; A Waller (E Waller, 52), M Haywood (R Smith, 9), P Hill (A Petch, 68), A Coles, A Moon, A Scott-Young, A Hinkley (S Graham, 52), J Augustus.
Replacements not used: B Nansen, K Wilkins, C Braley, T Litchfield.
Referee: W Barnes (RFU).
Yellow card: Ramm (2).