Northampton Saints saw their Gallagher Premiership hopes agonisingly ended as they went down 27-14 in their semi-final against East Midlands rivals Leicester Tigers.
The opening 40 minutes was played on a knife edge and ended 6-6, as two penalties apiece from Dan Biggar and George Ford saw the sides go in level – although Tigers ended with 14 men on the field as Guy Porter saw yellow with the final play of the half.
Tommy Freeman’s try and a penalty from James Grayson saw Northampton hold a narrow 14-13 lead just before the hour mark, but Leicester powered back into the contest with a late try for Freddie Steward and two more Ford penalties to progress to next weekend’s showcase Final at Twickenham.
An early kicking battle at a raucous Mattioli Woods Welford Road was won by Saints as Leicester hit Freeman in the air to concede a penalty.
The hosts also lost centre Dan Kelly to an early hamstring injury, while tempers were simmering early on as an early scrap on the floor by skippers Lewis Ludlam and Ellis Genge was followed by another from Courtnall Skosan and Freddie Burns as the latter was penalised for a double movement.
Biggar pointed to the posts and put Saints 3-0 ahead from just inside Leicester’s half, and that lead could have been extended but for the TMO with 12 minutes on the clock. Skosan attempted to gather a chip over the top, and was adjudged to have knocked on following a lengthy review, after Alex Mitchell went under the posts one phase later.
Two minutes later, Skosan was again in the thick of things as Saints won a scrum against the head, but the Springbok wing could not gather Mitchell’s pass to score.
Leicester turned defence into attack on 17 minutes as they burst up the field from their own 22, but after a stern defensive set from Saints – who repelled a number of lineout drives – Matavesi was penalised for going off his feet and George Ford levelled the scores.
Biggar’s 25th-minute drop-goal attempt drifted narrowly wide after Saints kicked another penalty into the 22 and Mitchell slipped Matt Proctor through a gap to make good ground.
But Leicester’s defence held firm and eight minutes later the hosts won a scrum penalty in front of the posts to allow Ford to put them 6-3 ahead.
There was some controversy on the stroke of half-time however as Hutchinson’s inch-perfect grubber-kick earned his side a five-metre scrum. From the resulting play, the Northampton centre was hit hard in the head by Porter, and (after deliberating with the TMO) Matthew Carley ruled a yellow card was punishment enough – with Biggar landing the routine three-pointer to end the half.
Saints made a scintillating start to the second 40 as Matavesi’s break took them into the 22, but Tigers scrambled well and won a penalty under their own posts to clear.
The men in Black, Green and Gold were over the whitewash moments later though, as Api Ratuniyarawa was stopped inches short before Saints – with penalty advantage – put the ball through the hands for Freeman to scamper over.
Biggar’s conversation attempt however drifted just wide to keep the scoreline at 11-6 on 50 minutes, and that was the fly-half’s last involvement as he made way for James Grayson with a back injury.
Three minutes later, Leicester were back in front as Hanro Liebenberg’s interception won back possession high up the field, and Ford darted through a gap to scamper under the posts and chip over the conversion himself.
Skosan so nearly went over in the corner in the 56th minute as Saints played with penalty advantage, but he was tackled into touch by Porter (back on the field following his sin-bin), and it was a double whammy for Northampton as Grayson’s subsequent kick drifted just wide.
But after the new front row of Alex Waller, Mike Haywood and Oisín Heffernan won another penalty in front of the posts, this time Grayson was on target to take the scoreline to 14-13 – although the lead was short-lived as just after the hour mark Ford took advantage of a dominant scrum, this time from Tigers.
A crucial decision came with 15 minutes to play as Heffernan saw yellow for a seatbelt tackle, and the hosts took full advantage of the extra man to send Steward over in the corner for a decisive try.
Ford was wide this time with his conversion, but landed two more penalties in the final ten minutes to take the game beyond Saints, who battled bravely until the final whistle blew in what was Director of Rugby Chris Boyd’s final game at the helm.