In every sport in every corner of the world people get excited about derby matches but there are few rivalries and few games which match that of the Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints.
Saturday’s match was a mesmerising game of rugby which simply had it all, tries galore, big hits, dancing backs, powerful and precise set pieces and a red card.
Northampton Saints seem to have got the monkey off their back and once again beat the Tigers at Franklin’s Gardens this time 23-19. All the more remarkable they did it without their captain Dylan Hartley who once again had a moment of madness, this time throwing and elbow in a mele and catching Leicester centre Matt Smith square in the face after just 16 minutes of action
Referee JP Doyle had little choice but to show him a straight red.
Hartley has been at the heart of controversy his whole career, getting at 26 week ban for eye gouging his now England team mate James Haskell in 2007, then getting an eight-week ban in 2012 for biting Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris while playing for England in the Six Nations and getting an 11-week ban after being sent off for swearing at the referee in the Premiership final against Leicester in May.
On that occasion Leicester ruthlessly punished the Saints for his indiscretion to win 37-17 at Twickenham but on Saturday Northampton’s 14 men heroically held out to seal a historic and emphatic victory.
Questions will be asked of why and just how Leicester failed to punish the Saints with an extra man for more than a hour.
Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “I am disappointed with how we managed the second half. We got what we deserved, probably.
“You have to control the field position and get the pack in the right areas, and we didn’t do that at all. Defensively, we were poor. We were too narrow, and it will be interesting when we have a look on Monday morning that one side with one less back can create opportunities in the wide channels against us. That’s not right.
“They outplayed us in the second-half. There is no point in beating about the bush. We seemed to go AWOL at times in defence.”
However while Cockerill was wondering where his extra man in defence had gone he was not left in any doubt about Doyle’s decision to send Hartley off.
He said: “If you strike someone in the face you are liable to get yourself in trouble. That’s the nature of it. You would have thought he might have learnt a lesson by now. That’s just the way it is.”
Niki Goneva scored tries for Leicester on Saturday after some beautiful handling across the line. However his second of the match owed a huge debt to his opposite winger Miles Benjamin who showed a glimpse of the form that had time terrorising defences last season.
He switched through the gears, accelerated and fended his way past four Saints to get Tigers on the front foot.
But the first try of the afternoon was created in the most Leicester of ways, with a powerful surge from the pack.
It was announced this week that the world record holder for the most international points scored, All Black legend Dan Carter, will join Racing Metro next season. While Tigers’ youngsters Owen Williams and Freddie Burns both have great potential what Leicester could achieve with a player of his class at the helm could be absolutely staggering. While the 32-year-old’s best days are behind if he can stay fit he will continue to terrify defences with his running game and win tight encounters with his kicking.
However while Leicester may not have made too many marquee signings in recent years, no Sam Burgesses’ or Sonny Bill Williams, they may just have made their most important contract deals of the year this month with the news the front row trio of Dan Cole, Tom Youngs and Marco Ayerza have all put pen to paper to long term deals at the club. The three started against Northampton and had the upper hand in the battle of the front rows, winning a penalty to give Leicester a 7-6 lead at halftime.
However second half tries from Alex Waller, Ben Foden and young Jamie Elliott, just three minutes from time, sealed the win.
The loss drops Leicester down to seventh in the Aviva Premiership but with more than half the games in the league season still left to play there is no need to panic at Leicester’s position or even their form.
Leicester have just played the three toughest back-to-back fixtures you can face in Northern hemisphere club rugby, back-to-back games against the two time European champions and champions of France and then an away game against the champions of England and league leaders.
Winning just one of those matches, even for a club of Leicester’s ambition and reputation is not a bad return.
The team is getting stronger each week with the return of their injured players. Tom Croft started against Northampton and did well and Tigers still have Manu Tuilagi to come back into the fold and Samoan prop Logo Mulipola.
However life does not get much easier for Leicester in the immediate future who face Sale at the AJ Bell Stadium tonight and then Bath at Welford Road on January 4. Both clubs are currently above them in the league however if results go the right way Tigers can move into fourth place in the table with a win in the north.