Leicester Tigers returned to the top of the English rugby for the 10th year on Saturday with a 37-17 win, marred by controversy and incident, against Northampton Saints.
There is a rarely an East Midlands derby without incident and Saturday’s Aviva Premiership was no exception with Saints captain Dylan Hartley being shown a red card for allegedly swearing at referee Wayne Barnes and calling him a cheat after being warned for his language earlier in the encounter.
The two minutes of madness took place on the stroke of half time and was undoubtedly the key moment of a tumultuous match.
Anyone who headed to the bar early when Stephen Myler attempted to kick the ball out from a 22 restart with the score at 13-5 to Leicester will have been baffled when they returned to see Northampton down to 14 and further three points down.
There is an age old adage that finals are won by the tightest of margins and so it proved on Saturday.
Leicester were awarded a scrum on the 22 for Northampton’s error in kicking the ball straight out. The Tigers pack which had been on top throughout won another penalty in kicking range for replacement George Ford.
To make matters worse Hartley lost his cool and was dismissed.
The decision by Barnes was a brave one by a right one. No one wants to be talking about the decision a referee makes when they look back at a game of this magnitude, shown live in more than 100 countries, but rugby’s strength has always been its manners and respect for the referee and on the biggest of stages Mr Barnes reminded the entire rugby community of the importance of that.
Unfortunately for Hartley he will now also miss the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia after receiving an 11 week ban for his actions.
Leicester crossed the line four times in all to continue their high scoring vein which has been a trademark of their play this season. Niall Morris opened the scoring, before Graham Kitchener, Manu Tuilagi and Vereniki Goneva touched down in the second half.
By the end of the match the favourites Leicester showed their class and scored a stunning opening try, but the two minutes of madness before half time had a lasting effect on the match. However, Northampton showed great character to respond at half time and scored two great tries through Foden and Lee Dixon after the break, born out of playing an uninhibited offloading game which even Leicester struggled to live with for long stages.
After two years of disappointment in finals this year Leicester timed their rise to top form perfectly and used the trials and injuries they have sustained during the season to their advantage.
The best example of this was how Tigers dealt with the departure of captain Toby Flood. The fly-half was in inspired form early on, creating the opening try with a looping pass and challenging the Saints’ defensive line by taking the ball flat at pace.
However, he was forced from the field with concussion on 23 minutes after a crunching late tackle from England team mate Courtney Lawes, forcing Leicester director of rugby Richard Cockerill to bring on Ford.
And while Tigers were briefly rattled Ford, who played in the final last year due to injury to Flood, found his feet and fitted into a side he has played a large role in while Flood has been away on international duty.
The same is true of the captaincy, which was seamlessly passed on to Jordan Crane who led the side earlier this season and then to Geoff Parling for the final moments. In the key moments Leicester had leaders with experience making the big decisions which proved to be right ones and winning ones.
Centre Anthony Alllen, who declined to tour with England to Argentina this summer, won the Man of the Match honours but Leicester’s victory was a team effort from a side of superstars.
However amongst the dozen current international and six British and Irish Lions it was Allen and the uncapped lock Kitchener who shone brightest in the Tigers ranks. The second row was pivotal in preventing an inspired Ben Foden from touching down to score over the try line and then showed pace and rugby intelligence to take the ball at a standstill 25 metres out and set off, spotting a whole left by the opposition props to slice through and score.
Under a shower of confetti and a sky full of fireworks Geordan Murphy, who was left out of the match day squad, lifted the trophy with an emotional Martin Castrogiovanni to end their respective playing careers at the club as they have become accustomed - with silverware and champaign.