East Midlands derbies over the past few years have rarely been short of drama, but for the first 15 minutes this latest episode in the saga had had nothing more than fierce competition and a couple of opportunities for the Saints, notably Kahn Fotuali’i’s quick tap setting up an attack which was ended only when George North and Alex Waller were stopped close to the Leicester line.
But that changed just before the end of the opening quarter.
Leicester won a turnover on halfway, which quickly became an attack that took the Tigers down to the home goal line. Dylan Hartley tried to defend a breakdown, Matt Smith took Hartley away from the ruck, and when the Saints’ skipper reacted with a forearm to the face he was red carded, following a long discussion between referee JP Doyle and TMO Sean Davey.
Mike Haywood came on for Tom Stephenson as the subsequent penalty was turned into a scrum, but even with eight men the hosts could not stop Leicester marching forward and earning a penalty try.
Boos rang out around the Gardens, but the referee’s decision was final and Saints had to play the remaining hour with 14 men.
Stephen Myler pulled three points back six minutes later, and despite being undermanned Saints continued to stick to their principles and play positive rugby. North had a good break, and the hosts had some good charges around repeated breakdowns in the shadow of Leicester’s posts. But at the crucial moment the ball went forward, Leicester won a penalty at a scrum and Williams cleared upfield.
But Saints would still have the last word of the half, but not before TMO Davey had intervened once again. This brought a yellow card for Tom Croft after a high tackle on Ken Pisi, which gave Myler the chance to bring the deficit down to one, which he duly did.
Croft was still absent when the second half kicked off, and within five minutes Saints made Leicester pay. Forwards and backs alike probed left then right then left again, but for all the firepower out wide it was the two props who created and scored the try, Salesi Ma’afu feeding Alex Waller, whose dummy was bought hook, line and sinker by Miles Benjamin to give the space for the loosehead the space to dive over.
With Myler off the field for a concussion assessment James Wilson was handed the tee, but he - like Williams in the first half, and Myler with a subsequent penalty shot after he returned - saw his conversion attempt be pulled left by the strong breeze.
Williams, too, found kicking difficult, missing the conversion after Vereniki Geneva’s try on the hour had pushed Leicester back in front. This was a score where the lack of numbers finally told, with the Fijian making the most of some additional space to crash over from close range.
But four minutes later Saints struck back, again belying the lack of manpower to create space for runners out wide. Burrell’s powerful charge took out several defenders, Ben Foden ran an arrow-straight line down the five-metre line and with Mathew Tait having to mark the supporting North it gave the replacement full back the chance he needed to crash over.
However Foden’s isolation five minutes later proved crucial, as Mathew Tait stripped the ball to spark a counter-attack. Defenders were scrambling, but Miles Benjamin’s pace was too much, and with men over on the left it was a matter of time before the visitors scored, which they duly did, Goneva going over for his second.
This time Freddie Burns was on target with the conversion, and with 10 minutes to play Leicester had a three-point lead.
Nevertheless Saints were not broken, far from it, and a lovely Sam Dickinson offload put Jamie Elliott away down the right wing. The tackler failed to roll away, Myler kicked to the corner, and after the forwards had a drive the backs put the ball through the hands for Elliott to score in the left.
Myler nailed the conversion, Saints played out the clock, and went into Christmas top of the table.
13mins LEICS Miss pen Williams
17mins SAINTS Red card Hartley
20mins LEICS Try Penalty Con Williams 0-7
26mins SAINTS Pen Myler 3-7
38mins LEICS Yellow card Croft
39mins SAINTS Pen Myler 6-7
HALF-TIME SAINTS 6 LEICESTER 7
45mins SAINTS Try A Waller 11-7
53mins SAINTS Miss pen Myler
60mins LEICS Try Goneva 11-12
64mins SAINTS Try Foden 16-12
70mins LEICS Try Goneva Con Burns 16-19
76mins SAINTS Try Elliott Con Myler 23-19
FULL-TIME SAINTS 23 LEICESTER 19