Leicester Tigers 26 Northampton Saints 17
In a match they dared not lose, Leicester reverted to the tactic they rely upon above all other – total and utter scrum dominance – which laid the platform for Handre Pollard to kick 16 points to secure a vital derby victory against Northampton Saints.
Their own head coach Dan McKellar had stated this was a must-win game after losing four of their first five Premiership matches and an air of desperation hung over Welford Road along with a thick dank drizzle. Both factors contributed to an error-strewn dogfight, which certainly will not win many converts to the sport in Premiership Rugby’s much touted derby weekend. Certainly the thrills did not match the quantity of spills. Yet while other crowds crown fancy fly halves or dazzling wingers as their favourites, Welford Road adores their tightheads more than any other stadium.
Joe Heyes quickly gained ascendancy over Saints’ loosehead Alex Waller, who was milked like a prized Jersey. Hence Northampton were well and truly on the back foot when the introduction of Cole was hailed like that of Maximus entering the gladiatorial arena in the 53rd minute. Ethan Waller, on for his brother Alex, proved to be the sacrificial victim.
Saints had already conceded two penalties in the red zone, one of which resulted in Sam Matavesi getting yellow carded for coming in at the side. At this point Leicester opted to take the scrum, yielding three successive penalties, Waller joining Matavesi in the sin-bin and another prop Francois van Wyk, the replacement loosehead, being driven over against his former club. That gave Leicester a commanding 19-3 lead and allowed McKellar to breathe a deep sigh of relief and hail England’s past and potential future.
— Rugby on TNT Sports (@rugbyontnt) November 18, 2023
“The two most important players on the field are the No 3 and No 8 and I have said many times that the reason I was attracted to this job is the alignment with how I coach and what this club values in the set piece, defence and kicking strategy,” McKellar said. “Obviously in the set piece, the tightheads play a big role and Joe Heyes has got an enormous future and starting to really find his feet at Premiership and international level.
“When you are bringing Coley off the bench on 50 minutes with a scrum five metres from the opposition line you know you are spoilt for choice. I don’t think I have heard a reception like that for a tighthead which is tremendous. The Tigers fans really appreciate the importance of scrum, lineout and maul.”
With the fit-again Leicester flanker Tommy Reffell also feasting on turnovers at the breakdown, Saints had no foothold in the game and they conceded an astonishing 20 penalties, not to mention a bevy of free kicks. That is a particularly dangerous strategy when Leicester can employ the World Cup’s deadliest goalkicker in Pollard who with Ben Youngs ensured Leicester controlled the game.
“He’s world class isn’t he,” McKellar said. “He’s in a rare patch of form off the tee at the moment. It was nice for him to be able to step up and build scoreboard pressure. He’s a big personality within the game and having him in our dressing shed gives our players confidence. He’s won back to back World Cups so he presents that aura but he’s also incredibly humble and incredibly respectful.”
The boot of Pollard had given Leicester a 12-3 advantage when the game’s most contentious moment occurred. Referee Karl Dickson adjudged that Leicester captain Hanro Liebenberg was being held in a ruck and penalised Northampton. Lewis Ludlam’s complaints about the decision saw them matched back a further ten metres from where Leicester kicked to the corner, setting in motion the train of events that resulted in Saints conceding a try and losing two players to the sin-bin.
— Rugby on TNT Sports (@rugbyontnt) November 18, 2023
“I was surprised at the breakdown penalty, we were 12-3 down,” Phil Dowson, the Northampton director of rugby, said. “Hanro Liebenberg is sat in the middle of our ruck, I don’t feel Chunya [Munga] is holding him in. That goes against us and then 10 metres for dissent because we are frustrated at that. It seemed quite a contentious decision. It is a swing penalty effectively.”
Northampton did respond immediately with 13 men through George Furbank’s try but Liebenberg made the game safe with a short-range tap-and-go rendering Matavesi’s late try a mere consolation. The relief around Welford Road was palpable. Glory to the tightheads.
In the 84th minute, Matavesi capped an excellent interchange of passing, pulling off a show and go en-route to scoring, but it did not even merit the consolation of a bonus point and the relief all around Welford Road was palpable.
Leicester Tigers: F Steward (J Shillock, 77); J Bassett, G Porter, S Kata (M Scott, 58), O Hassell-Collins; H Pollard, B Youngs (T Whiteley, 70); J Cronin (F van Wyk, 51), C Clare (A Vanes, 54), J Heyes (D Cole, 54), C Henderson (S Carter 65), O Chessum, H Liebenberg, T Reffell, J Wiese (M Rogerson, 74)
Northampton Saints: G Furbank; G Hendy (T Davison, 61-67), T Freeman, F Dingwall (O Sleightholme, 72), J Ramm (C Langdon, 54-64); F Smith (R Hutchinson, 55), A Mitchell (T James, 72); A Waller (E Waller, 56), C Langdon (S Matavesi, 48), T Davison (E Millar-Mills, 58), A Moon, C Munga (T Lockett, 72) , A Coles, T Pearson (H Pollock, 51), L Ludlam
Sin-bin: Matavesi 53-63, E Waller 56-66
Scoring sequence: 3-0, Pollard pen; 3-3 Smith pen; 6-3 Pollard pen; 9-3 Pollard pen; 12-3, Pollard pen; 17-3, Van Wyk try; 19-3, Pollard pen; 19-8, Furbank try; 19-10, Furbank con; 24-10, Lienbenberg try; 26-10, Pollard con; 26-15, Matavesi try; 26-17, Furbank con;
Referee: K Dickson