Tom Vickers’ Northampton Saints v Leicester Tigers review and player ratings

IN THE THICK OF IT - Wayne Barnes was at the centre of more east midlands derby controversy (Picture: Linda Dawson)
IN THE THICK OF IT - Wayne Barnes was at the centre of more east midlands derby controversy (Picture: Linda Dawson)
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Another east midlands derby, another redefinition of the word controversy and, most importantly, another winless afternoon for Saints.

Fans of the green, black and gold had every reason to believe that this would be the day they finally smashed the Leicester Tigers hoodoo to pieces.

That this time, it would be they who marched into work on Monday with a smile on their face.

But, once again, it was those pesky Tigers who prevailed to pick up the points and the bragging rights.

It felt like groundhog day for Saints, with whistler Wayne Barnes in the middle of a maelstrom of contention at the end of another fractious afternoon.

So irked were Saints with the official’s decision to call time when it was felt there were still a few seconds to play, that Jim Mallinder pursued the official to seek clarification.

It is not something you would normally see from the typically calm and collected director of rugby, but it reflected the stresses and strains of another frustrating afternoon.

Saints have now failed to get one over on their nearest, but far from dearest, neighbours in 10 meetings and there can be no doubt that this is no longer simply about ability.

It is about mentality, and the most worrying thing about everything that happened on Saturday was the consequence of the result.

Leicester’s win ensured they remain on a collision course with Saints in the end-of-season play-offs - and that cannot be viewed as good news.

DIFFICULT DAY - Will Hooley landed one kick, but missed three as Saints lost to Leicester (Picture: Linda Dawson)

DIFFICULT DAY - Will Hooley landed one kick, but missed three as Saints lost to Leicester (Picture: Linda Dawson)

Richard Cockerill’s men are far from invincible, particularly this season, but that is not the salient point.

The line between winning and losing big games is so fine that mentality is what tips the balance in one team’s favour.

Saints used that to great effect last season as they steamrolled Saracens in the play-off semi-final at Allianz Park.

They used criticism of their failure to beat any of that season’s top four to fuel their bid.

And after turning the tables, they now have the Indian Sign over the men from Barnet, who have not won any of the past four meetings between the teams.

But Leicester’s grip on Saints is even stronger. It’s a chokehold.

Blame Barnes, blame missed kicks (Saints failed with four attempts) or blame something else, but Northampton’s biggest problem was the first 35 minutes on Saturday.

They simply didn’t emerge with the belief they needed, failing to exit their own half as Leicester bossed the territory and possession to fly into a 13-3 lead.

It’s a long way back from there against any team, and Saints just had a bit too much to do.

Yes, they could have won it had young fly-half Will Hooley kicked his goals or Barnes allowed more time at the denouement, but they shouldn’t have been in that situation.

When Saints last beat Leicester, Stephen Myler, who is undoubtedly a huge miss at the moment, having been absent for the past three games, left 18 points on the field.

On that day back in September, 2010, Leicester, as they are now, were reigning champions, but so comprehensive was the nature of the Northampton display that they had no answer.

Saints have put teams away left, right and centre at Franklin’s Gardens, winning their previous eight league games and scoring an average of 33 points.

Leicester are no better than Saracens or Bath. But what they have that the others didn’t is that mental edge.

It must also be said that Myler and reigning player of the season Samu Manoa are being missed massively. And their absence played its part, too.

But Leicester were also without a laundry list of key men and yet they still retained their unbeaten run.

Somehow, Saints are going to have to find a way to beat their rivals if they want to win the league this season.

But that is not the immediate concern.

Now it’s about a final four league games in the bid to ensure Leicester don’t close the seven-point gap between second and third to book themselves a home semi-final against Saints.

That would be an even greater obstacle as, despite coming close back in October, no Northampton team has won at Welford Road since 2007.

Wherever you look there are damning statistics.

But those haunting reminders won’t decide the destiny of the title. Performances in May will.

And Saints must remember that when they have scratched the Leicester surface this season, they have got rewards.

The problem was that they lacked the necessary sharpness in the formative stage of Saturday’s game.

How they rated...

BEN FODEN

Made a couple of trademark breaks and also did well defensively as he stopped Vereniki Goneva in his tracks, but maybe kicked more than he should have... 7

JAMIE ELLIOTT

Made the break that led to Saints’ first try, but his involvement was largely limited as Leicester shut down the wide channels... 6

GEORGE PISI

Tried to provide a midfield spark, but Leicester were out of the blocks quickly to quell the Samoan’s influence... 6

LUTHER BURRELL

Looked sharper than he had at Sale a week earlier, but is still easing himself back into the team... 6

GEORGE NORTH

Had very few opportunities to run at the Leicester rearguard, but made inroads when he did. Missed a couple of tackles, though... 6

WILL HOOLEY

The youngster had a big game in defence and wasn’t bad in attack either, but, like any fly-half, he will be judged on his kicks, and he missed three of them... 6

KAHN FOTUALI’I - CHRON STAR MAN

The scrum-half sparkled throughout, even after moving to fly-half in the second half. Scored a try and desperately tried to get his team on the front foot... 8

ALEX WALLER

Soldiered on after seemingly taking a knock in the first half and more than stood his ground in the scrum... 7

DYLAN HARTLEY

The skipper was forced off after just 33 minutes, which was a bitter blow for Saints, though his replacement, Mike Haywood did well... 6

SALESI MA’AFU

Like Hartley, had to leave the action early as his heavily-strapped left leg forced him off the field... 6

COURTNEY LAWES

Tried to make inroads for his team with some big carries, but Leicester were not easy to break down... 7

CHRISTIAN DAY

A quietly efficient game once more, but the experienced campaigner wasn’t able to steer the team to victory... 6

CALUM CLARK

Did some good work at the breakdown as Saints finally found their feet in the game, but it was to be too late... 7

PHIL DOWSON

Showed plenty of appetite for the fight as he attempted to blast holes in the Tigers defence, but very little ground was given... 6

TOM WOOD

Started at No.8 for the first time this season and did the role well, trying to relieve the early pressure with some carries and controlling the scrum... 7

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

MIKE HAYWOOD (for Hartley 33)

Did extremely well when coming into the game in difficult circumstances and the young hooker is a real asset to Saints... 7

TOM MERCEY (for Ma’afu 37)

Saints didn’t lose anything with this man’s introduction as he kept the scrum balance in a pressure situation... 6