Leicester retain East Midlands bragging rights
November 3, 2012
Leicester retained the East Midlands bragging rights
Leicester Tigers edged East Midlands rivals Northampton Saints 16-12 at Welford Road on Saturday.
Tigers could afford for young fly-half George Ford to miss five penalties and still triumph, courtesy of centre Matt Smith's second half try and 11 points by the young number 10. On another day, Ford's inaccuracy might have proved costly, but Northampton, who were restricted to four Ryan Lamb penalties, lacked the firepower and tactical acumen to punish Leicester.
Saints led 6-3 just before half-time, but Leicester then scored 10 unanswered points - highlighted by Smith's 53rd minute touchdown - and Northampton could find no way back.
The game, shorn of several England players through a combination of unavailability a week before the autumn Test series opener against Fiji and injuries, never moved out of second gear. Despite the game's derby status, it lacked aggression for the large part, and once Leicester edged in front they were able to close out the game reasonably comfortably.
Australian flanker Julian Salvi, back in action following a hand injury, was easily the most effective performer on either side, and his workaholic efforts were ultimately rewarded with victory. Although Leicester's stay at the Premiership summit is likely to prove short-lived, it was a victory they desperately needed following last weekend's narrow loss at Gloucester, and Northampton remain without a win at Welford Road since 2007.
Leicester were without six players on England duty ahead of the forthcoming autumn Tests, but scrum-half Ben Youngs and centre Anthony Allen started after being released by red rose boss Stuart Lancaster. Injured England forwards Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes highlighted Northampton's list of absentees, but Calum Clark made an immediate return to action in Saints' back-row after completing a 32-week suspension. Clark was cited and banned for hyper-extending Leicester hooker Rob Hawkins' arm in the Anglo-Welsh Cup final last season, and a quirk of the fixture list meant he made his return to action at the Tigers' lair.
Lamb nudged Northampton into a fourth minute lead through an angled penalty, and Saints dominated early territorial exchanges, culminating in Lamb finding his range again for a 6-0 advantage. In contrast, Tigers' 19-year-old playmaker Ford - starting instead of an unavailable Toby Flood - missed two penalty chances in two minutes, although he did find his range with a third attempt that cut Northampton's lead. But Ford missed another penalty seven minutes later, snatching badly at a strike that was well within his range, and Saints stayed in the ascendancy as they chased a rare victory on Leicester soil.
Tigers suffered an injury blow six minutes before the break when their former England lock Louis Deacon's injury-ravaged run continued as he was forced off nursing a shoulder problem that saw him replaced by Ed Slater.
Lamb rifled a drop-goal attempt wide from Saints' next attack, yet for a derby clash often associated with a white-hot atmosphere, the opening 40 minutes proved strangely tepid. Ford landed an equalising penalty with the final kick of the half, but entertainment value had been a premium as the teams trooped off level at 6-6.
It took Leicester less than two minutes of the second period to go ahead for the first time, with Saints unable to free themselves from trouble just outside their 22. Youngs' slick service from the scrum base gave Tigers time and space, and Smith was worked over cleverly from close range by substitute Vereniki Goneva for a try that Ford converted.
Leicester had visibly increased the tempo, and although Lamb completed his penalty hat-trick shortly afterwards, Tigers looked capable for the first time of taking charge.
Ford made it 16-9 in the 53rd minute when Saints hooker Mike Haywood was penalised for a high and late tackle on home skipper Geordan Murphy, which underlined a slow turning of the screw by Leicester.
There was much greater urgency about Leicester than there had been before the break, and with Ford also growing in confidence, Tigers were able to pin their opponents back.
Lamb booted a fourth penalty with six minutes left to set a few nerves jangling in the Leicester camp, but they held on to claim the victory their supremacy in key areas deserved, helped when Lamb was sin-binned three minutes from time for barging Allen off the ball.
Richard Cockerill reflects on the win
And post-match Richard Cockerill praised fly-half Ford despite his off-day. "George is a very good player," the Tigers boss said. "Today, he had an off day with the boot, but he did some very good things with ball in hand.
"He will learn from it. He has had some pretty good days as well - in a semi-final and a final last season - and that is part and parcel of young people developing. I will put my arm around him and encourage him, and we will carry on. People want him to play all the time or go somewhere else to play, but we have to develop George and look after him.
"He will play enough rugby here along with Toby Flood. If you want to play for England, play here in front of Toby and then you will be in the England team. We all know young players are going to make mistakes, and George made mistakes today.
"He is a young lad developing, and you are going to have these days with young players. He will play next week, and he will battle through and work hard, which he always does. Ford could potentially be a world-class player, but there is a curve. He is 19.
"If he sits here and develops for two more years, he will still be only 21 and will still have 10, 12 or 15 years of rugby left in him, so what's the rush? The best person in this whole George Ford scenario is George Ford. He is a great kid, and he understands exactly where he is at. It will be peaks and troughs."
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