The 250th East Midlands Derby ended in defeat for Northampton Saints, who for long periods of the game looked like avenging the losses inflicted by their great rivals Leicester Tigers last season.
Saints surged out of the traps at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens and were the dominant side in the first half, only to have the tables turned on them in the final 30 minutes of the contest.
Phil Dowson’s men held on in the face of relentless pressure, but a stream of penalties awarded against them by referee Karl Dickson led to a trio of sin-binnings for Juarno Augustus, Emmanuel Iyogun and Alex Mitchell.
The defending Gallagher Premiership champions sensed blood as a result and proved too strong for the depleted hosts, with the final score making the contest look more clear-cut than it really was.
Freddie Burns opened the scoring for Leicester with a penalty from 40 metres out after six minutes, as Courtney Lawes was penalised for not rolling away, but Saints went on to dominate the next 20 minutes.
They didn’t strike at the first time of asking, admittedly, as Augustus’ knock-on following Lewis Ludlam’s ball inside ended a promising attack.
The men in Black, Green & Gold thought they had hit back when Dan Biggar went in under the posts after some nice handling by Augustus and Lukhan Sakalaia-Loto. However, cheers soon turned to jeers as the score was ruled out by the TMO – Freeman’s long pass out left to Rory Hutchinson was deemed to have drifted forward.
But Saints swiftly put that disappointment behind them by scoring two superb tries in as many minutes to open up a 14-3 lead. Both moves came down the left, with the first seeing George Furbank passing inside for the onrushing Hutchinson, who timed his pass to send Mitchell sprinting beneath the sticks.
Before Leicester knew what had hit them, they were lining up under their own uprights again as Mitchell sent Furbank sprinting into space before passing to Freeman, who made it into the corner.
The visitors were reeling at the time, but they began put Saints under more pressure the longer the first half wore on, with a superb last-ditch tackle by Biggar forcing Jimmy Gopperth to knock on just short of the line out wide.
However, with the hosts struggling to get out of their 22, their defences were eventually breached just before the break when a succession of pick-and-goes by the forwards led to Burns spinning the ball out to give Freddie Steward an easy finish.
Burns’ conversion reduced Saints’ advantage to 14-10 at half-time, but they pulled clear again four minutes after the restart when Alex Coles went over down the right after good breaks by Ludlam and Fraser Dingwall.
But in what proved a real turning point in the match, Leicester quickly hit back again when Nemani Nadolo bulldozed his way through before off-loading for Guy Porter to force over the whitewash.
From that point, it was all the visitors with Saints being forced into conceding a string of penalties, leading to Augustus being the first of their men to be sent to the sin bin.
Either side of that, the defence had continued to hold out, with Jack van Poortvliet being held up in-goal and Saints old boy Chris Ashton being stopped in his tracks by a combination of Matt Proctor and Furbank.
But Iyogun, forced to soldier on after a nasty injury to Ethan Waller soon after his arrival, then joined Augustus on the sidelines as the hosts were reduced to 13 men, and that is where the Tigers pounced.
They hit the front when Ashton dived over in the corner down the left after being put in the clear by Phil Cokanasiga. George Martin then seized on a loose ball, caused by Mitchell deliberately knocking on Ben Youngs’ pass, meaning Saints were also reduced to 12 men (in a reversal to last week’s match against London Irish).
Augustus soon returned, but this did not stop Tigers ruthlessly exploiting the gaps left behind, with Steward scoring twice in the closing stages to complete his hat-trick and give the scoreline a harsh look.
SAINTS: Furbank, Freeman (Collins 78), Dingwall, Hutchinson, Proctor (James 73), Biggar (J Grayson 65), Mitchell; Iyogun (E Waller 58-61), S Matavesi (Haywood 65), Petch (Hill 52), Sakalaia-Loto, Coles, Lawes (Moon 50), Ludlam (Scott-Young 73), Augustus
TIGERS: Steward, Potter (Ashton 65), Porter (Cokanasiga 61), Gopperth, Nadolo (Taufete’e 74), Burns, Van Poortvliet (Youngs 59); Cronin (Van Wyk 65), Clare, Cole (Heyes 59), Chessum, Green (Wells 49), Martin, Reffell (Cracknell 54), Liebenberg