Tigers down Saints for Cup glory
March 18, 2012
Veteran Julian White lifts the Anglo-Welsh Cup following Leicester's success at Sixways
© Getty Images
Leicester Tigers retained the East Midlands' bragging rights and took the Anglo-Welsh Cup with a 26-14 win over Northampton Saints at Sixways on Sunday.
Tries from Steve Mafi and Scott Hamilton proved to be enough to give the Tigers the win in what was an enthralling contest with both scores coming at moments when the Saints were threatening. Northampton rallied strongly and grabbed a late try through Christian Day but in typically Leicester fashion, they showed dogged intensity to get over the line despite being without a host of international stars. As a result they become the first side to lift the Anglo-Welsh Cup twice since the tournament's inception back in 2006.
The nature of their win was a million miles away from their woeful start to the current campaign when they fell to the Scarlets 31-3, but since then this crop of youngsters, allied with invaluable nous from veterans such as Geordan Murphy and Julian White - who lifted the trophy at the end of the match in what could be his last game for the club, has grown as a unit with the superb George Ford and Lugovi'i Mulipola at the centre of everything they did well.
While Owen Farrell is getting the headlines on the Six Nations scene, the prospect of him going head-to-head with George Ford for the England fly-half berth in years to come is mouth-watering. Ford is showing maturity beyond his ridiculously young age and although he missed one shot at the posts, his accurate kicking out of hand always put the Saints defence under pressure with the Tigers showing impressive commitment and intensity to capitalise on the resulting field position.
And their pack also proved to be dominant - despite an early wobble - with three scrums won against the head in five second-half minutes enough to extinguish any hopes of a Saints fightback. Mulipola - aided by the excellent Mafi and Thomas Waldrom - performed admirably throughout with the Samoan prop taking full advantage of the absent Dan Cole and Martin Castrogiovanni.
The game was always going to be in the shadow of Saturday's events in Cardiff and at Twickenham but with East Midlands bragging rights on the line, Sixways could have been sold out twice over for the first final meeting between these two sides. You have to question the organisers' decision to exile the final of the competition away from a traditional rugby stronghold and the positioning of the final in relation to the international calendar that both only serve to devalue the competition.
With a total of 10 regulars on international duty, the teams were packed with players believing they had a point to prove. And it was the Saints who started the match the brighter with Stephen Myler taking advantage of referee JP Doyle's unwillingness to let advantage develop to slot two from three penalty attempts in the opening 10 minutes.
Tigers loose-head Boris Stankovich was floundering against opposite tight-head Paul Doran Jones and Marcus Ayerza's introduction after just 11 minutes - whether this was tactical or not remains ambiguous - stabilised the platform with the tide firmly turning in that department. Ford struck two penalties to get the Tigers back on level terms with the two fly-halves keeping the scoreboard ticking over with a further penalty apiece.
Mulipola was a constant thorn in the Saints' side with a series of gainline-busting darts but it was a break from Gloucester-bound Billy Twelvetrees which helped the Tigers into good field position from where Murphy's cut out pass found Mafi on the wing and the flanker sidestepped his marker to dot the ball down after 26 minutes.
And the dominant Tigers started the second-half in the same manner they finished the first - on the front foot. Having hooked a penalty wide in the closing exchanges of the first 40, Ford kept his cool to stretch the Tigers' lead to 10 points just five minutes into the second half.
Saints prop Brian Mujati's introduction moments later seemed to galvanise Northampton and George Pisi, the form centre in this season's Aviva Premiership, came close to punishing the Tigers with a bulldozing run only to knock the ball on 10 metres from the try line. The Saints kept the pressure up with Scott Armstrong nearly evading Horacio Agulla but Jim Mallinder's men attempted to force the pace of the match and a wayward pass was snuffled up by Hamilton who galloped from his own 22 to ground the ball under the Saints' posts.
But credit to the Saints, they attempted to force their way back in the match with Myler's precision replaced by Ryan Lamb's creativity and his nudge through nearly put Roger Wilson under the posts with 20 minutes left on the clock. With the offside penalty given in the Saints' favour - Mallinder's men opted for the five-metre scrum only for the Tigers to pull out a monumental effort to prevent the push over try.
A series of five-metre scrums materialised with the Tigers winning three on the bounce against the head to keep the Saints at bay with the Northampton outfit's earlier domination in that department fairly anachronistic.
Despite the Tigers edging that department it was the Saints who enjoyed all of the attacking territory in the final 20 or so minutes with Leicester reduced to 14 men for the final ten minutes of the match after Murphy was consigned to the sin-bin. Armstrong nearly crossed for the Saints only for Mafi to snuffle up the ball on one darting run but this did not deter Northampton who kept on hammering away at the Tigers' line.
Eventually Day got across the line for the Saints to reduce the deficit to 12 points but it proved to be too little too late as the Tigers held on for the win.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September