Northampton Saints’ run of three successive wins came to an end as Leicester Tigers emerged victorious in the 252nd East Midlands Derby.
The first half proved to be a battle of the boot with Handré Pollard kicking three penalties to one long-range effort from Fin Smith at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.
Pollard added a fourth penalty shortly after the restart before Francois van Wyk grabbed the game’s first try against his former Club.
George Furbank responded with a fine score of his own that raised hopes of a comeback that were ultimately ended by Hanro Liebenberg’s opportunistic score in the final ten minutes, despite Sam Matavesi finishing off a sensational team effort deep into stoppage time.
Pollard kicked Tigers into a third-minute lead when Furbank’s spilt high ball found Curtis Langdon in an offside position and the Springbok fly-half profited from the tee.
A Tommy Freeman break from deep was followed by a kick ahead that Pollard somehow returned to halfway. Jasper Wiese pounced on a breakdown and from a close-range rolling maul, Charlie Clare drove over but the score was chalked off as Solomone Kata obstructed Saints in their defensive efforts.
When Tommy Reffell was penalised on halfway for infringing at the breakdown, up stepped Smith to smash over a brilliant long-range penalty to level the scores.
Tigers moved six points ahead before the interval as two long-range penalties were converted by Pollard as Saints were penalised at the scrum and breakdown.
Approaching the half-hour mark Saints got on the front foot and kicked dangerously into the 22, going in search of the game’s first try, but both Lewis Ludlam and Tom Pearson were both guilty of loose handling moments that let Tigers off the hook.
Before Karl Dickson brought the first-half to a close, he penalised Saints at scrum time but this time Pollard was off target. His opposite number Smith launched a probing kick in behind Freddie Steward, who dithered near the goal-line, only for the chasing James Ramm to just fail to ground with an outstretched arm.
Early into the second half, Pollard atoned for his earlier miss from the tee to open a nine-point lead.
Saints needed to respond and built pressure in the attacking 22 with Pearson breaking free, but Leicester held firm before Smith eventually put a chip ahead out on the full.
When Leicester got back into the Saints’ 22, they were awarded a string of penalties and the visitors lost Matavesi to the sin-bin. After Reffell was just short from the back of a scrum, Tigers remained patient and forced their way over through van Wyk, Saints losing another man as Ethan Waller was yellow-carded after the try for a string of penalties against the pack.
Down to 13 men and 16 points down on the scoreboard, Saints found their way back into the game when Freeman went close to rolling over and upon the recycle, Furbank backed himself to step inside a drifting defence and finish powerfully, before converting his own score to close the gap to nine.
Minutes later, the travelling fans to Mattioli Woods Welford Road were cheering once more when Furbank glided through the midfield and grubbered ahead for Premiership debutant Henry Pollock to race onto. However, his attempts to gather were deemed a knock-on by referee Karl Dickson, before Freeman finished in the corner for a try that was disallowed, despite replays suggesting the ball had not made contact with Pollock’s hand.
Tigers, buoyed by their reprieve, went in search of a game-sealing score with Alex Mitchell being forced into a fine clearing kick before Hutchinson was rewarded for some brilliant work at the breakdown.
With eight minutes remaining, Tigers got their reward as home captain Liebenberg quickly tapped a penalty and burrowed his way over from five metres out.
Saints’ heads did not drop and with two minutes left, Alex Coles worked his way over but the score was chalked off for obstruction.
While it wasn’t enough to salvage a point from the match, Saints registered a try-of-the-season contender as Freeman and Pollock showed adventure in stoppage time to move play from their own 22 and into the Leicester half. Coles carried twice and kept the ball alive moving into the Tigers 22, where Hutchinson provided the assist for Matavesi to sidestep his way over for a try Furbank improved to cut the difference between the sides to nine points come the final whistle.
TIGERS: 15 Steward, 14 Bassett, 13 Porter, 12 Kata, 11 Hassell-Collins, 10 Pollard, 9 Youngs; 1 Cronin, 2 Clare, 3 Heyes, 4 Henderson, 5 Chessum, 6 Liebenberg (c), 7 Reffell, 8 Wiese.
Replacements: 16 Vanes, 17 van Wyk, 18 Cole, 19 Carter, 20 Rogerson, 21 Whiteley, 22 Shillcock, 23 Scott.
SAINTS: 15 Furbank, 14 Hendy, 13 Freeman, 12 Dingwall, 11 Ramm, 10 F Smith, 9 Mitchell;1 A Waller, 2 Langdon, 3Davison, 4 Moon, 5 Munga, 6 Coles, 7 Pearson, 8 Ludlam (c).
Replacements: 16 S Matavesi, 17 E Waller, 18 Millar Mills, 19 Lockett, 20 Pollock, 21 James, 22 Hutchinson, 23 Sleightholme.