Leicester 11-3 Northampton, Aviva Premiership semi-final, May 14
Tigers battle past Saints to book final berth
May 14, 2011
Tigers battle past Saints at Welford Road%]
Leicester booked a seventh successive Aviva Premiership Final appearance with a 11-3 victory over Northampton Saints in a gripping semi-final clash at Welford Road.
A second half try from winger Alesana Tuilagi proved to be the decisive score in a pulsating and controversial encounter that saw Tigers centre Manu Tuilagi escape a red card for a brutal assault on Saints winger Chris Ashton. Both players were eventually sin-binned in the wake of their confrontation and the hosts capitalised on that let-off to outmuscle their local rivals and book yet another Twickenham date.
A solitary Toby Flood penalty gave the Tigers the edge at the break after an outstanding defensive effort from Northampton and Stephen Myler brought the Saints back on level terms shortly after the break. But Saints - who will contest the Heineken Cup Final against Leinster next weekend - had no answer to their rivals' dominance and their strength in depth.
Leicester exerted the early pressure with the direct running of winger Alesana Tuilagi and his brother Manu peppering the Northampton line - but it was the boot of Flood and aerial ability of Scott Hamilton that carved the first opening only for Saints to snuff out the danger with Courtney Lawes leaving a significant impression of his own. The visitors soon conjured some momentum of their own thanks to their talent-heavy back division only for the Tigers' muscle and organisation to avert the danger.
There was no let up in the ferocity of the tackles and Saints hooker Dylan Hartley was the next to go crashing into Flood with a late hit that prompted an uncharacteristic moment of retaliation from the England international. The result was a warning for Hartley from referee Wayne Barnes and a penalty for the Tigers but Flood could only pull it wide although he was not helped by a gusting wind.
Flood recovered his composure minutes later to cut the Saints' defensive line and put prop Marcos Ayerza away but Northampton's defensive lapse was only temporary. The opposing packs continued to take chunks out of each other with each able to celebrate minor victories before Youngs almost wriggled free in the Saints' 22. Newby then took up the challenge only to be thwarted by some excellent Northampton tackling.
The enthralling nature of the battle continued at the resulting scrum with the Tigers' pack earning a free kick only to be powered off their own ball by an impressive shunt from the Saints moments later. Leicester continued to be the more creative of the two sides and were rewarded in terms of territory but defence continued to hold sway ensuring the scoreboard remained untouched
A bloodied Chris Ashton is held back by Dylan Hartley after being punched by Manu Tuilagi © Getty Images
Tempers flared in dramatic style on the half hour with Manu Tuilagi and Ashton caught trading blows off the ball. The result was a yellow card for both men - in what was a clear mistake from the assistant Robin Goodliffe. Tuilagi should have seen red for his role in the ugly incident. It was his high tackle that sparked the confrontation and, following a shove from Ashton, he launched a flurry of punches that ended with a vicious right hook that somehow failed to floor the England winger.
The incident only served to increase the intensity and the decibel level was raised again a few minutes later with Flood finally opening the scores from the kicking tee after a high tackle on flanker Tom Croft.
The game continued to simmer following the re-start with the return of Tuilagi and Ashton bringing both back to full strength. A charge down by Croft caused a minor panic in the Saints 22 but they recovered the ball and were soon back on level terms. The Tigers were penalised for taking flanker Phil Dowson out at a lineout on half way and with the wind at his back, Myler backed himself to make the kick and duly did so.
Leicester centre Anthony Allen, Flood and Youngs then combined well to take the hosts into the Saints 22 where Manu Tuilagi and then prop Martin Castrogiovanni went close in an impressive power-packed salvo. Not for the first time, Northampton held out and they went one better at the resulting scrum with Castrogiovanni penalised - and moments later withdrawn - as the Saints pack celebrated.
Castrogiovanni's replacement Dan Cole was at the heart of Leicester's predictable response at the next scrum which would lay the platform for their next foray into the Northampton 22. It looked as if it would be another fruitless visit with Flood's flair and Allen's industry failing to prise an opening but the pressure drew a penalty that enabled them to reclaim the lead.
Flanker James Downey's failure to release Manu Tuilagi in the tackle handed Flood the chance to stretch his side's lead as the game entered the final quarter but his kicking woes returned with his latest effort shanked wide of the target. But Flood's kicking from hand kept Saints at bay and their shortcomings in attack would soon be punished further.
Allen sparked the move with some quick feet and when Ashton flew out the line looking for an interception - only to miss - the Tigers struck with a clinical passage of play. Good hands from replacement Thomas Waldrom, hooker George Chuter and then Ayerza put Alesana Tuilagi away down the touch line and he was always going to have the power and pace to see off the challenge of Saints winger Bruce Reihana and Ashton to score the game's first try.
A penalty against the Tigers for not releasing offered the Saints the chance to build an attacking platform and Myler made way for Shane Geraghty in the hope of capitalising. But Leicester stood firm with Flood an increasingly influential figure as the hosts closed out a deserved victory.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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