Leicester Tigers 18 Northampton Saints 23
Northampton may not produce a braver and more heroic performance all season. Spearheaded by the monstrously courageous Dan Biggar, the Saints withheld a potent Leicester rear-guard to secure their first East Midlands derby win since 2019 and keep alive their hopes of a top-four Premiership finish.
No one embodied Northampton’s indefatigable spirit like Biggar. Late in the second half, with the Saints soaking up a barrage of Leicester surges, the Wales fly-half bravely put himself in the firing line of wrecking ball Nemani Nadolo – who scored both of Tigers’ tries on his first appearance in 10 matches. Biggar began to hobble off with a knee knock, aided by two medics, before realising that his side had no one to replace him. The playmaker shook his trusty right peg and saw the match out, even making a vital tap-tackle on Leicester’s No 8 colossus Jasper Wiese. The pair were the match’s outstanding players; Biggar, too, is surely now guaranteed a Lions spot.
“I’d certainly be picking [Biggar] to go to South Africa,” Northampton director of rugby Chris Boyd said after his side’s “patchy but gutsy” win. “When I was involved with Super Rugby, we played the South Africans on a constant basis and Dan is well suited to playing [there]. What will be will be, but I would expect him to be named in that squad.”
Meanwhile, Boyd’s counterpart, Steve Borthwick rued his side’s missed chances: “We had plenty of opportunities and we turned the ball over eight times in the opposition 22. You have to credit their defence, with how resolute they were, but we need to take those opportunities.”
Accuracy was, at times, in short supply for both sides, with the game’s opening score coming after Northampton added more direction and impetus to their attack, working through 15 phases with lock David Ribbans touching down.
Fly-half George Ford opened Leicester’s account from the tee, before the England playmaker gift-wrapped a pass to Northampton centre Rory Hutchinson, whose interception extended the visitors’ lead.
Saints’ flanker Lewis Ludlam might count himself fortunate that he was not dealt with more sternly by referee Karl Dickson after catching Dan Kelly with a high shoulder. Kelly’s centre partner, Matt Scott, was also fortunate to receive just a yellow card for an equally high shoulder to Saints’ No 8 Shaun Adendorff. A sin-binning for Scott was correct, but the rhetoric used by Dickson to assess the centre’s challenge suggested the punishment could have been more severe.
Playing with 14 men has become second nature for the Tigers this season, however, so Nadolo’s first try came as little surprise, with the Fijian barging his way through Adendorff from close range.
Two mindless Leicester indiscretions allowed Biggar to stretch the Saints’ lead, and no sooner had Scott returned for Leicester than lock Harry Wells was also trudging off for 10 minutes in the cooler. Wells departed for what was deemed a cynical, mis-timed charge-down on Biggar, but it looked particularly harsh.
Northampton cared not one jot, as they buffered their lead with a score of marvellous simplicity. Scrum-half Tom James darted from the back of a scrum, before feeding wing Tommy Freeman, whose dynamic leg drive gave him time to pick out the try-scorer, hooker Sam Matavesi.
It all seemed done and dusted for Leicester at 13 points adrift, especially when Ford hit the post from an eminently kickable penalty. The fly-half was more accurate from a meaty scrum minutes later, though, to cut the deficit to 10 points, as the momentum started to shift.
The Tigers began to dominate the scrum and breakdown, and replacement scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet brought spice around the fringes. From the 19-year-old’s break and a few deft Tiger touches, Nadolo stepped wing Matt Proctor to bag his second and leave a one-score game.
With the Tigers’ teeth sinking deeper, flanker JJ Tonks was sin-binned for Northampton’s collective indiscipline. But Biggar dug deep and the Saints held on.
Scoring sequence: 0-5 Ribbans try (12 mins); 3-5 Ford pen (18); 3-10 Hutchinson try (24); 3-12 Biggar con (25); 8-12 Nadolo try (38); 10-12 Ford con (39); 10-15 Biggar pen (40); 10-18 Biggar pen (42); 10-23 Matavesi try (46); 13-23 Ford pen (59); 18-23 Nadolo try (63). HT: 10-15.
Leicester Tigers: F Steward; K van Wyk (Z Henry 68), M Scott, D Kelly (N Nadolo 17), K Murimurivalu; G Ford, B Youngs (J van Poortvliet 49); E Genge (L de Bruin 54), T Youngs (c) (C Clare 47), D Cole (J Heyes 47); H Wells (T Lavanini 67), C Green; H Liebenberg, L Wallace (C Brink 25, Wallace 31, Brink 46), J Wiese.
Booked: Scott 33, Wells 45.
Northampton Saints: G Furbank; C Proctor, R Hutchinson, P Francis (A Tuala 41), T Freeman (T Collins 72); D Biggar, A Mitchell (T James 31); A Waller (cc) (N Auterac 56), S Matavesi (M Haywood 56, Matavesi 79), P Hill (O Heffernan 72); D Ribbans, A Moon (A Coles 60); T Wood, L Ludlam (cc), S Adendorff (JJ Tonks 66).
Booked: Tonks 75.
Referee: Karl Dickson.