Northampton Saints ground out a Derby Day victory at Welford Road, winning 23-18 at Leicester Tigers to keep up their chase of the Gallagher Premiership’s top four.
The visitors built a 15-10 half-time lead with David Ribbans and Rory Hutchinson both scoring tries, although Nemani Nadolo’s effort kept Tigers in touch.
But despite scoring first in a cagey second half through Sam Matavesi, Nadolo struck again to keep the pressure on Northampton, who won a couple of crucial late penalties deep in their own territory to keep Leicester at bay.
"People talk about attack winning games, and defence winning championships...— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 24, 2021
we've been a bit leaky in that department, but I thought we were pretty gutsy in the end there."@SaintsRugby DoR Chris Boyd happy with four derby day points🤝#GallagherPrem pic.twitter.com/p0icFO1XEY
Despite having three late injury withdrawals in Ollie Sleightholme, Teimana Harrison and Ehren Painter, Saints showed plenty of ambition in the early stages of the match, setting the tone in defence but looking to play from everywhere with the ball in hand and fizzing the ball across the Welford Road turf.
And the visitors produced the first piece of real quality of the match off the back of an eighth-minute scrum, as Hutchinson created the space for Dan Biggar to release Tommy Freeman down the left – but the young wing was tackled into touch.
But just three minutes later, Northampton had the first try of the afternoon as they went through an impressive 15 phases for Ribbans to eventually power over from close range, although Biggar’s conversion attempt from out wide hit the post.
A high tackle in midfield allowed George Ford to pull back three points for Tigers from the kicking tee in the 17th minute. Piers Francis won back possession off the kick-off as he forced a knock-on, but Saints were then pinged at the resulting scrum with a free-kick awarded to Leicester.
Hutchinson then produced another moment of magic to score with 24 minutes on the clock, intercepting Ford and racing under the posts for a seven-point score, Biggar making no mistake with the routine conversion to make it 12-3.
There was yet another injury blow for Northampton to contend with on the half-hour mark, as Alex Mitchell was forced off with a knock and Tom James replaced him – but four minutes later Leicester lost Matt Scott to a yellow card after a high shot on Shaun Adendorff.
Tigers No.8 Jasper Wiese burst through the middle shortly after, and despite robust defence again from Northampton to repel the hosts repeatedly on their own line, Nadolo finally used his size advantage to burrow over.
Ford’s conversion brought the scores within two points, but as Francis again made a nuisance of himself from the restart, he won a penalty which Biggar slammed between the uprights to take Northampton into the sheds 15-10 ahead.
Francis was the latest withdrawal as the centre did not return for the second half, but Ahsee Tuala entered the action and Hutchinson took his place chasing the kick-off, immediately winning a penalty which Biggar kicked for three points.
Ford tried to respond with a penalty of his own, but hit the post, and Leicester compounded that as Harry Wells saw yellow for a nasty late hit on Biggar’s standing leg as the fly-halt attempted a clearance.
Northampton then struck a key blow from the resulting lineout; Matavesi hit his man and then collected the ball off Freeman’s excellent offload to crash over the whitewash and make it 23-10.
But from here the game got a little scrappier and Tigers began to wrestle back some momentum, with Ford first closing the gap as the game approached the hour mark when Nick Auterac was penalised at a scrum.
Nadolo then grabbed his second score of the afternoon after scrum-half Jack van Portfleit made a break, with Leicester spreading the ball across Saints’ scrambling defence for the winger to charge over in the corner – although the conversion from Ford was wide.
Ribbans forced a key turnover as he ripped away possession to shift the momentum, but the penalties were also racking up against Northampton and eventually JJ Tonks was unlucky to see yellow for cumulative infringements after what looked on the replays to be a good jackal.
That fortunately did not cost Saints however, as man-of-the-match Biggar – battling on through an injury of his own – made a crucial tap-tackle on the charging Weise, before Ahsee Tuala and Oisín Heffernan both came up with huge penalty wins in a nerve-wracking final five minutes.
It was a vital four league points won for Northampton, with Harlequins and Sale Sharks both snatching late victories in an enthralling race for the top four.