Tuilagis find punch to knock out Saints
Leicester 11 Northampton 3
Published 15/05/2011 | 05:00
Leicester found their punch of old to win the most tense and tightest of derbies, and reach the play-off final for the seventh consecutive season.
But while their director of rugby Richard Cockerill spent most of the second half ranting and raving at perceived injustices perpetrated by the referee Wayne Barnes, the Tigers were supremely fortunate not to have played the final 45 minutes with 14 men after Manu Tuilagi followed up two jabs on Chris Ashton's face with a right hook that left the England wing requiring stitches above his left eye.
Barnes, after a long consultation with the touch judge, Robin Goodliffe, sent both players to the sin-bin. Tuilagi had started the exchange, taking Ashton out with a high challenge off the ball and reacting excessively after the England wing shoved him on the back of the head. Ashton hardly deserved a yellow card, all the more so because Toby Flood had earlier got away with a rabbit punch on Dylan Hartley in front of the referee that did not even command the reversal of a penalty already awarded.
Tuilagi was probably saved by the occasion, but it was another case of lucky Manu. The England-qualified centre is 20 on Wednesday and he may spend his birthday appearing before a disciplinary committee because he is certain to be cited.
Leicester took a three-point lead into the interval after Flood made up for an earlier missed penalty. Northampton, with Roger Wilson and Courtney Lawes to the fore, protected their line while the Tigers, despite the promptings of Ben Youngs and Flood, struggled to find space.
The elder Tuilagi, Alesana, dropped the first two passes that came his way and was not much more disciplined than his brother, getting away with a high challenge on Ashton as well as a forceful shove on James Downey in front of Barnes.
He did, though, score the only try of the game nine minutes from the end and it was fitting that a raw, atavistic match was decided by a supreme moment of skill.
Tuilagi received the ball 40 metres out after a counterattack launched by Anthony Allen. Ashton just missed out on an interception that would have left him with a free run to the line. George Chuter took the ball and slipped it in one movement to the prop Marcos Ayerza, who looked right and passed to the elder Tuilagi on his left. The wing stepped out of Jon Clarke's tackle and by the time he reached Bruce Reihana in Northampton's 22 he had built up the momentum of a dump truck and the outcome was his 13th try of the league campaign.
Leicester, even allowing for Manu Tuilagi's reprieve, fully deserved their victory. Their performance in the second half, when they kept Northampton on the back foot, was redolent of the way they controlled games in the past.
Northampton were reliant on their starting XV. Hartley was high on nuisance value initially, picking scraps with Flood, Youngs, Croft and Chuter. The first four scrums ended in a penalty or a free-kick, the breakdown was like a war zone, lineouts abounded and it was destined from the start to be a match that turned on one or two incidents.
Northampton had their moments, their two most promising move coming to grief after forward passes, but they were unable to impose themselves on Leicester up front.
If they looked well set when Stephen Myler made it 3-3 five minutes after the restart, it subsequently did not matter how hard the wind was blowing because Leicester, who are seeking a third successive Premiership title, hogged the ball and made the Saints, who will meet another resourceful opponent in Leinster in Saturday's Heineken Cup final, look one-dimensional.
Scorers -- Leicester: A Tuilagi try; Flood 2 pens. Northampton: Myler pen.
Leicester: Hamilton; Smith (Agulla 46), M Tuilagi, Allen, A Tuilagi; Flood, Youngs (Grindal 76); Ayerza, Chuter, Castrogiovanni (Cole 53), Mafi (Slater 71), Skivington, Croft, Newby, Crane (Waldrom 64).
Northampton: Foden; Ashton, Clarke, Downey, Reihana; Myler (Geraghty 76), Dickson; Tonga'uiha, Hartley, Mujati, Lawes (Easter 71), Day (Sorensen 70), Clark, Dowson, Wilson.
Referee: W Barnes (Eng).
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