East Midlands derbies of recent vintage have developed a reputation for being tense, dramatic and compelling affairs, and this Franklin’s Gardens clash was certainly eye-catching from the first minute to the last as Saints just could not find the one last attack to take the points.
Ultimately a first half interception try proved to be the game’s crucial moment, not least because it sucker-punched the Saints just as they were building some powerful momentum after scoring a five-pointer of their own and beginning to put Leicester under the cosh.
Had Luther Burrell’s pass found either of the two unmarked men outside him then Saints would have had the space to put themselves into a great position. Instead they found themselves between the sticks to regather themselves while Vereniki Goneva celebrated his score.
The big Fijian also had a major hand in Leicester’s third score, barrelling through a couple of tackles to set up Freddie Burns’s try, but, by and large, the Saints’ collective effort kept the Tigers’ big runners quiet.
For their part the hosts showed great dexterity at times with ball in hand, looking to keep play alive and their tempo high. Some lovely second half interplay between Harry Mallinder, Ben Nutley and Mikey Haywood typified their approach, and there were typical powerful runs from Teimana Harrison, Tom Wood, Alex Waller and many others.
There was not much time to see Ahsee Tuala, though, the full back being withdrawn through injury with just 14 minutes on the clock. By then Saints were also 10 points down, Harry Thacker having capitalised on some space down the left wing to race home, showing some good sleight of hand in selling the final dummy, and with Burns kicking the conversion and a penalty.
But there were no signs of the Saints capitulating. Mallinder came on and was immediately an assured presence at the back, backing himself to return the ball and regularly see off the Tigers’ defence with some neat touches of his own.
Burrell, on the other hand, was somewhat more direct, and when he cut a magnificent line at full pace to go straight through the visitors’ line it put Saints onto the front foot and helped create the space for Harrison to crash over.
There was certainly a time when the physicality on show may well have spilled over, and while there was certainly frustration about several aspects of the Tigers’ approach - their pack took their time to set up their own lineouts and pulled the Saints’ drives down regularly - it was to their credit that Saints did not let the niggles take over their own game.
The end of the first half had seen them camped on Leicester’s line as the Tigers infringed repeatedly, and as the hour approached there was a similar attitude from both teams, Saints going to the corner and the visitors being penalised time and again.
Eventually they got the try while playing with an advantage, George Pisi coming onto a short ball from his brother Ken to crash over. But there was double fortune for Leicester, too, as Stephen Myler hit the post with the conversion and no yellow card shown to one of the men in green, white and red, which would surely have come given that they were on a collective team warning at the time.
To make things worse for the Saints, Burns’s try came during what would have been the sin bin period, and it put Leicester nine points clear with 15 still to play.
JJ Hanrahan’s penalty three minutes from the final whistle left enough time for there to be one final attempt at what would have been another dramatic finish. And Saints threw everything at Leicester, winning a turnover and Mallinder making another burst down the left touchline.
There was time for another penalty, too, this time for Tuilagi making a tackle off the ball, but the Tigers managed to slow things up in the second salvo and time ran out.
SAINTS Tuala; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, Elliott; Myler, Kessell; A Waller, Haywood, Brookes, Craig, Day, Lawes, Wood (capt), Harrison
Subs - Marshall, Ma’afu, Hill, Matfield, Nutley, Hanrahan, Mallinder, Collins
LEICESTER Tait (capt); Veainu, Betham, Tuilagi, Goneva; Burns, B Youngs; Ayerza, Thacker, Cole, Barrow, Kitchener, Fitzgerald, McCaffrey, Fonua
Subs - Bateman, Mulipola, Balmain, Slater, Croft, Harrison, Williams, Thompstone
REFEREE Tim Wigglesworth
10mins LEICS Pen Burns 0-3
12mins LEICS Try Thacker Con Burns 0-10
19mins SAINTS Pen Myler 3-10
23mins SAINTS Try Harrison Con Myler 10-10
26mins LEICS Try Goneva Con Burns 10-17
40mins SAINTS Pen Myler 13-17
HALF-TIME SAINTS 13 LEICESTER 17
45mins LEICS Pen Burns 13-20
53mins SAINTS Try G Pisi 18-20
58mins LEICS Pen Burns 18-23
61mins SAINTS Pen Burns 21-23
63mins LEICS Try Burns Con Burns 21-30
76mins SAINTS Pen Hanrahan 24-30
FULL-TIME SAINTS 24 LEICESTER 30