Northampton tighten grip on top spot with thumping defeat of Leicester

<span>George Hendy dives in for Northampton’s third try as they took the game away from Leicester.</span><span>Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images</span>
George Hendy dives in for Northampton’s third try as they took the game away from Leicester.Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Another week, another thumping win for Northampton who could afford to leave out a handful of their star names and still put arch rivals Leicester to the sword with plenty to spare. This was their fourth home match in a row and with the scrum-half Alex Mitchell in fine fettle, their fourth resounding victory to underscore where the balance of power in the east Midlands lies.

It was a painful afternoon for Leicester, who huffed and puffed on Dan Cole’s 235th club record appearance in the league and were trailing by a point when Solomone Kata was sent off for a high tackle on Fraser Dingwall on the hour.

That Northampton could call on Fin Smith and Tommy Freeman for impressive cameos – all the while leaving Courtney Lawes and Ollie Sleightholme out of the squad – and still equal their biggest winning margin over Leicester in the Premiership, however, demonstrates the gulf in class between the sides.

Related: Dow and Kildunne hat-tricks fire 14-try England to Six Nations rout of Ireland

Saints finished with five tries and tightened their grip on top spot. They travel to Twickenham to face Harlequins next Saturday but a home semi-final surely looms while for Leicester the prospect of the playoffs looks increasingly distant. It took Northampton a while to find anything like top gear but whenever they did the Tigers were chasing shadows.

“Since the World Cup we’ve seen they’ve tried to mitigate down where possible,” said Leicester’s head coach Dan McKellar of Kata’s red card. “I thought probably yellow was fair enough. It wasn’t blatant foul play, it was a rugby accident, yellow card and 10 minutes. But they thought it was a red card so we’ll go through the process now.

“It was one of [the turning points]. The second half just wasn’t good enough. We were well beaten. I’m not even really worried about playoffs, I’m just worried about performance.”

Leicester contained Northampton for most of the first half and capitalised on a yellow card for Elliot Millar-Mills by scoring the opening try through Julián Montoya at the back of driving maul. In the positives column they can chalk up an accomplished first Premiership start at flanker for the England Under-20s captain, Finn Carnduff, and they took a 10-6 lead with them into the half-time interval, albeit with Jasper Wiese in the sin-bin.

Northampton scored two tries inside the first seven minutes of the second half. The in-form hooker, Curtis Langdon, had the first, showing an impressive turn of pace on the left after good work from the full-back, James Ramm. The second was a penalty try, awarded because Tom Seabrook was all alone on the left wing and George Furbank’s pass would have found him had Jamie Shillcock not intervened and knocked the ball on. The Leicester full-back was shown a yellow card for his troubles.

To Leicester’s credit, they stuck in the fight and with Ollie Chessum to the fore, they scored a second try with a well-worked lineout move that led to Wiese crashing over. Handré Pollard’s conversion trimmed Northampton’s lead to 18-17.

Leicester’s chances were delivered a hammer blow, however, when Kata was shown a red card and Robbie Smith’s pushover try from a lineout drive gave Northampton breathing space on the scoreboard before George Hendy’s delightful score brought up the bonus point.

Granted Leicester were down to 14 men but the manner in which Fin Smith spotted a gap before flicking a pass to Freeman in the buildup demonstrated just why the fly-half is so highly rated.

Northampton lost Hendy to the sin-bin for an infringement as Leicester broke down the left but it mattered little – Tom James scored the final try of the match while Fin Smith added a drop goal for good measure.

“You have to be mindful of minutes played and energy levels and strength in depth,” said Phil Dowson, Northampton’s director of rugby. “We have talked about whether we can get to the end of the season in a good position from an availability point of view and from a physical point of view and a psychological point of view.”

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