Leicester’s players were determined not to play out Aaron Mauger in a minor key. Their captain, Tom Youngs, called a players’ meeting last week after the club had announced the New Zealander would be replaced by Matt O’Connor and the response was their most impressive away performance of the season.
Leicester, notwithstanding a few sackings over the years, most notably that of Dean Richards, have been a byword for stability and consistency but when they face their now main top-four rival, Bath, at Twickenham next weekend, they will be under their third coach of the season following the decision to recruit O’Connor three months after Richard Cockerill was sacked as the club’s director of rugby and Mauger was put in temporary charge.
Youngs said: “It has been disruptive but I spoke to the players and said it was not about looking for excuses but showing we are a tight group. It is sad to see Aaron go and it was emotional after the match, but we sent him out on a deserved high. He said he did not want sympathy but a win that would put Leicester back into the top four and we showed the character and resilience to deliver that.
“We do not shirk responsibility as players and we know we have not been good enough this season, for whatever reason. We have suffered heavy defeats home and away but this was a massive statement game. We do not want to become the first Leicester team not to make the play-offs and things are starting to tick. Aaron was choked up after the game: he is a great coach who I am sure will go on to achieve great things.”
It was not a typical, card-strewn derby, although it had its feisty moments and, eventually, yielded a yellow card when Mike Williams recklessly charged into his fellow England squad member Teimana Harrison, who was guarding a ruck. With fourth place the target for both sides, risk-taking was on the menu and Northampton, in the first half at least, played with a fluency they have lacked for most of the campaign.
They scored three tries in the opening 22 minutes and there were moments when Leicester looked as if they would crack, as they had so often in the previous seven months, but fuelled by emotion as well as a desire to continue their run, with Northampton winning only two of their previous 15 Premiership meetings, they kept in touch with Freddie Burns’s boot in the first half, having opted to play into the wind, and opened out after the interval.
“These games are always eventful,” Youngs said. “When I am retired I will come to this fixture home and away because it brings the best out of players and fans. You want it close and edgy. Sometimes this year things have got away from rugby, with new laws coming in. We want it edgy, we want it hyper; that is why we play and what we had here with stuff happening off the ball makes these games special.”
Mauger was recruited last season to work with Cockerill to inject Leicester’s forward game with creativity but the message became confused. It was ironic that in his final match in charge, victory was achieved by the fusion of set-piece superiority and creativity the club’s board hoped the pair would generate. The result was the second-highest points total in the derby in the Premiership era, three points short of the total here in 1999. Defeat leaves Northampton, whose next three matches are against the clubs in the top three, effectively planning for next season.
Jim Mallinder said: “The game could have gone either way. It was a question of what if. The referee thought our scrum was a problem and we were penalised there which put us up against it.” The Northampton director of rugby added: “It was a very open game and we knew Leicester would be revved up.”
Northampton Tuala; Foden, Tuitavake (Burrell, 70), Mallinder, North; Myler, Groom (Dickson, 59); A Waller (E Waller, 68), Hartley (Haywood, 56), Brookes (Hill, 59), Lawes, Day (Harrison, 59), Wood (capt), Clark, Picamoles (Gibson, 68).
Tries Tuitavake, Tuala, Picamoles. Cons Myler 2. Pens Myler 4.
Leicester Veainu; Thompstone, Tait, Mermoz (Roberts, 69), Pietersen; Burns (O Williams, h-t), B Youngs; Genge, T Youngs (capt; McGuigan, 59), Cole, Barrow, Kitchener (M Williams, 64), Fitzgerald, O’Connor (McCaffrey, h-t), Hamilton.
Tries Thompstone, B Youngs, McCaffrey. Cons Burns, O Williams 2. Pens Burns 2, O Williams 2. Drop goal Burns.
Sin-bin M Williams, 67.
Referee: G Garner. Attendance 15,429