Leicester’s removal of Aaron Mauger as head coach last week was questioned by players and supporters, but there was no disputing the club’s agreement to the New Zealander’s request to a stay of execution so he could remain in charge for the east Midlands derby. One reason for bringing in Matt O’Connor to head the management team was the side’s poor away form this season, but against their local rivals in a match that was in effect for fourth place, they showed it was not a decision they were seeking.
Mauger was said to be too emotional to speak to the media after a victory in an unusually open derby that lifted Leicester to fourth, on course for a place in the play-offs for the 13th consecutive season. If some of their familiar frailties were exposed, conceding soft tries and wasting opportunities by losing possession, their character and resolve were undimmed by Northampton’s most impressive display in attack this season and the yellow card shown to Mike Williams 13 minutes from time, when the Tigers were trailing by five points.
In other away matches this season, a yellow card has been the prelude to a Leicester collapse, but here they grew taller. Telusa Veainu, who had spent the afternoon trying to make up for his blunder in the second minute when he missed a high kick from Stephen Myler under his own posts and gift-wrapped a try for Nafi Tuitavake, glided through the midfield and freed JP Pietersen on the left wing.
The South African was hauled down just short of the Northampton line by Courtney Lawes who, like the other players on duty who were involved in the Six Nations, showed a hunger throughout, but the replacement back‑rower Lachlan McCaffrey was in support to score the try for Owen Williams to regain the lead with the conversion.
Myler’s fourth penalty of the afternoon seven minutes from time put Northampton back in front. The Saints started the day three points behind Leicester in sixth and, having the more demanding run-in with their next three matches against the top three, knew that defeat would make it probable that they missed out on the top four for the second successive season, and they started with such swagger and abandon that they scored three tries in the opening 22 minutes.
Leicester, whose collapses at Glasgow, Saracens, Munster and Exeter this season had first precipitated the sacking of Richard Cockerill as director of rugby and then the hiring of O’Connor ahead of Mauger, absorbed the blows, hanging on with two penalties and a long-range drop goal by Freddie Burns in a performance that was a mix of Cockerill and Mauger, doggedness and set-piece strength supplemented by flair and ambition.
Owen Williams, a second-half replacement for the concussed Burns, regained the lead for Leicester four minutes from time with a penalty that punished Luther Burrell’s deliberate knock-on. It was the fourth time in the half that the lead had changed hands and Leicester needed a cushion. It came with the Tigers’ sixth scrum penalty of the match: Ellis Genge, playing in front of the England head coach Eddie Jones, had got through one England prop in Kieran Brookes and got the better of another, Paul Hill, for Williams to clinch the match with a kick from the halfway line.
There was still time for Northampton to mount one more attack, but they were turned over in the Leicester 22 having lost the momentum they had built up in the first period. The France No8 Louis Picamoles, who scored their third try having set up the second for Ahsee Tuala with a burst along the right wing, had been replaced and the hectic pace of the game had caught up with players.
Had Northampton showed as much intent and aptitude in attack in the first half of the season, they would not be involved in a scrap for fourth. Had Harry Mallinder found George North in a counter-attack at the end of the first half, neither passing nor kicking with Leicester’s defence scrambling after a turnover, an interval deficit of 13 points may have been too great for Leicester to overcome, but a reason the two clubs are battling for fourth rather than a home draw in the play-offs is the erratic nature of their performances which has bred inconsistency.
Given what was at stake, the openness of a derby known more for its score settling than try scoring was all the more surprising, although there was no shortage of incident, with Leicester getting away with high tackling and Northampton dabbling in jersey tugging off the ball. After the victory the Leicester captain, Tom Youngs, addressed his players and Mauger. “It was very emotional,” said Owen Williams. “Aaron is a great coach who cares about players. He will be missed dearly.”
Northampton Tuala; Foden, Tuitavake (Burrell 70), Mallinder, North; Myler, Groom (Dickson 59); A Waller, 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 ht), B Youngs; Genge, T Youngs (capt; McGuigan 59), Cole, Barrow, Kitchener (M Williams 64), Fitzgerald, O’Connor (McCaffrey ht), Hamilton.
Tries Thompstone, Youngs, McCaffrey. Cons Burns, O Williams 2. Pens Burns 2, O Williams 2. Drop goal Burns.
Sin-bin M Williams 67. Referee Greg Garner. Attendance 15,249.