He may be fast approaching his 23rd East Midlands Derby match, but Northampton Saints stalwart Alex Waller admits this weekend’s clash against Leicester Tigers has the feel of one of the biggest battles of years gone by.
Saturday’s visitors are enjoying something of a renaissance; after finishing 11th in the Gallagher Premiership two seasons in a row, Tigers rallied under head coach Steve Borthwick to finish sixth last term, and they are currently unbeaten with six games played so far in 2021/22.
That means Leicester are top of the pile ahead of their visit to cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens, but Saints – sat in fourth – have also made a promising start to the campaign.
With both teams flying high, it feels like more than local pride is at stake this weekend, and Waller knows all about playing in Derbies of huge magnitude, having been part of the side that avenged the 2013 Premiership final loss with that epic semi-final triumph the following year.
And while the chance to be the first team to bloody the Tigers’ nose this season lies in front of them, the 31-year-old prop is more excited by the prospect of Saints testing themselves against the league’s front-runners.
“Obviously, they’re unbeaten, so this is one of their best starts in a long time and we’re doing pretty well ourselves,” said Waller.
“That’s the sort of game you want to see because, for a couple of seasons, they had a dip in form and before that, they were probably the team on top.
“Now it’s a pretty level playing field, so it will be interesting to see where we’re at and I’m confident we’ll be able to pull out the victory if we play to our best. I’m sure they’ll be thinking exactly the same.”Alex Waller
Having begun the matches against London Irish and Wasps on the bench, the 31-year-old was back in from the start for last Friday’s 66-10 demolition of Worcester Warriors.
“We’ve got a really good squad,” Waller added. “I was having a look at the team being announced, when we were warming up against Worcester, and you look at some of the talent that’s coming through.
“We’ve got a real good mix of experience and youth, and that youth has now got a couple of years under its belt playing in the Premiership, so we’re in a very good spot.
“Personally, I’m happy with the way things are going at the moment – there’s a good relationship between myself, Nick, Manny and Hobbsy.
“We’re working really well together and sharing the workload. This is a really long season and, as we’re all aware of, it’s quite attritional, so being able to rotate is key.
“We’re in a really good place and long may that continue.”
The majority of the sold-out cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens crowd will be very keen it continues during what will be the first East Midlands Derby at Saints’ home ground in nearly two years.
It is a vastly different world we live in now, compared to the one Matt Proctor lit up with two tries on that day in 2019, with Northampton going on to win 36-13.
It has been a long wait for Saints to welcome their old rivals from up the M1, and Waller cannot wait to feed off the energy the Club’s supporters will bring on a day everyone will have circled when the fixtures were announced.
“Having the match called off last season was a bit disappointing, but that’s just the way the world was at that point,” Waller said.
“Everything was a little bit uncertain, but at the end of the day it was disappointing not to play them at home, so we’re looking forward to welcoming them on Saturday.
“It’s even better that now we can have a full crowd here, because that always adds a little bit extra.
“I think the lads are really looking forward to it being in this environment in this stadium and feeling the atmosphere.
“It wasn’t ideal, last season, but not the end of the world – like I said, bigger things were going on at that time – but I’m really happy that we’re able to get a full house in.
“We’ll have everyone behind us and, hopefully, we’ll be able to put on a good show and performance for them.”