Henry Taylor’s late score was not enough to prevent Northampton Saints slipping to defeat against Leicester Tigers in a disjointed East Midlands derby.
A 28th-minute penalty try and a superb individual effort after half-time from replacement tighthead Paul Hill saw Saints outscore their hosts by three tries to one at Welford Road, but the visitors’ ill-discipline cost them as Leicester fly-half Zack Henry struck 20 points from the kicking tee.
It was a first defeat to their bitter local rivals in almost two years for the men in Black, Green and Gold, and a desperately frustrating afternoon with an injury to prop Francois van Wyk – leaving 19-year-old Emmanuel Iyogun as the only fit loosehead at the Club ahead of next weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Exeter Chiefs.
With a place in the play-offs beyond Saints’ reach, Director of Rugby Chris Boyd made 13 changes to his starting XV from the side that went down to Bristol on Tuesday, with only powerhouse wing Taqele Naiyaravoro and flanker Lewis Ludlam retaining their places. Meanwhile Tigers were bolstered by the return of their skipper, Tom Youngs, but were without England fly-half George Ford.
Northampton travelled to Leicester's famous old ground with wins on each of their past three visits and notched their first points after three minutes through a Dan Biggar penalty.
But it was Tigers who scored the game’s first try through Ben Youngs. The scrum-half – making his 250th club appearance – gobbled up a loose ball on Saints’ 22 after a crunching hit from Nemani Nadolo and sprinted in under the posts for Tigers’ fly-half Henry to convert.
From here the young no.10 added another three penalties to extend the home side’s lead to 16-3, as an ill-disciplined Saints were pinged by referee Wayne Barnes at the breakdown.
With 25 minutes played the visitors managed to get a foothold in the game, enjoying plenty of territorial advantage as they hammered away at Tigers line. The pressure eventually proved too much for Leicester who lost Argentinian second-row Tomas Lavanini – yellow-carded for bring down a Saints’ driving maul.
From the resulting lineout, Saints were awarded a penalty try by referee Wayne Barnes, and Tigers were down to 13 as this time Harry Wells was adjudged to have prevented Saints from rumbling over.
Despite the two-man advantage, Saints were unable to benefit and after they were penalised at a scrum just inside halfway, 19-year old Tigers full-back Freddie Steward stroked over a long-range penalty to take a 19-10 lead at the break.
Henry added another penalty after the restart to keep the scoreboard ticking for the home side, but it was Saints who continued to enjoy plenty of possession and territorial advantage.
Tigers then lost their third player to the sin-bin when flanker Hanro Liebenberg cynically killed a Saints’ maul from one metre out.
This time though Saints did capitalise on the numerical advantage; Paul Hill conjuring a wonderful individual try after hooker Mikey Haywood tipped him the ball just outside the home side’s 22.
The tighthead burst through the Tigers’ defensive line, swerved his way around Ben Youngs and then fended off Steward to touch down his first try in Black, Green and Gold. Biggar added the extras to bring Saints back into contention.
But with 14 minutes left the odds were stacked against Saints when second row David Ribbans – who had been his usual industrious self – was yellow-card for a high tackle. Not long after Henry clinched the game for the Tigers when he coolly slotted a drop goal and then yet another penalty to move the score to an unassailable 28-17.
Saints continued to rally right to the final whistle and were eventually rewarded through Taylor’s scrambling effort, which secured a losing bonus point for the visitors, but the clock was against them and Biggar’s conversion was the final action of the match.