Positives Emerge From the East Midlands Derby

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Enough with the criticism of the officials. Whilst fans from both sides have argued to the moon and back over referee Tim Wigglesworth’s display, the positives from Saturday’s enthralling East Midlands derby have been lost on some. Leicester Tigers eventually prevailed as 30-24 winners at Franklin’s Gardens, and in a match that meant a lot to both sides, drama, entertainment and scrutiny of the referee were always on the cards. It is important to dwell more on the positives than the negatives, particularly in an era where using the ref as an excuse for defeat is becoming ever more prevalent. Let’s crack on:

Positives Emerge From the East Midlands Derby

The Two Harrys

With a combined age of 41, Harry Thacker and Harry Mallinder are the new kids on the block for the Tigers and Saints respectively. On Saturday they played at a level beyond their years, and were arguably their respective side’s best players on the day.

Thacker’s 50m solo run was the moment of the match, as the young hooker beat four or five tacklers and surged over the line in what will be a contender for try of the season. At 5”8, it would appear Thacker is a couple of inches shy of being able to function properly as a hooker, however he never shied from a tackle or a carry and used his pace and low centre of gravity to good effect. He earned himself the man of the match award and will be an important cog in the Leicester Tigers and England pack in the future.

On the other end of the physical spectrum, Mallinder performed brilliantly with ball in hand and looked Saints’ most dangerous and most intelligent back. His ability to pick gaps in the defence and burst through them using his considerable height and weight kept the Tigers defence guessing all afternoon. Indeed, every time he had the ball, it seemed supporters from both sides were expecting something to happen. That ability to get people off their seats is a gift few are blessed with. Jim’s son is definitely one to watch for the future.

Goal Kicking

The kicking on show was of the highest order, with only one failing to find its mark. Freddie Burns was the pick of the fly halves, amassing 25 points with three penalties, three conversions and a try. His 100% success rate in front of the posts meant his forwards were rewarded for their hard work, and he kept the scoreboard ticking over nicely, ensuring that the Tigers led for the majority of the match. His knocks on the England door are gradually rising in volume, and he may well be boarding a flight to Australia as a Saxon or full England international in a few months’ time.
At the other end, Stephen Myler was back to his consistent best. For some he flatters to deceive but he is a steady pair of hands and kept Saints within touching distance with his superb kicking, too. His conversion of Teimana Harrison’s try from the touchline was spot on.

Squad Depth

Lest we forget Northampton were missing nine important names through injury for the match, including captain Dylan Hartley and their two scrum halves, Kahn Fotuali’i and Lee Dickson. Tigers were missing experienced internationals, Tom Youngs, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Jean De Villiers and the uncapped but vitally important Brendon O’Connor as well. For Northampton to perform how they did with a less experienced and more unsettled side than the Tigers was admirable but ultimately told as the game wore on.

Nevertheless the Saints bench, in spite of all the injuries, made a significant impact on the game. Mallinder was excellent, Nutley was everywhere, Matfield provided some more bulk and a recognised leader to rally around, while Tom Collins and JJ Hanarahan came on and upped the tempo well. Saints played positive, heads up rugby in the closing ten minutes or so and made sure that Leicester had an uncomfortable and nervy finish to the match.
Tom Kessell at scrum half particularly highlighted how strong Saints’ squad is. With no recognised nine on the bench, Kessell had to play the whole game, and his sniping and quick service kept Leicester’s fringe defence on its toes for the duration. He played very well considering it was only his 2nd Aviva Premiership start.

For Leicester, the luxury of bringing on club captain Ed Slater is something Tigers fans enjoyed after injuries have depleted the squad for a number of seasons. Sam Harrison injected some tempo into the attacking play from scrum-half and Tom Croft made a nuisance of himself, too.

Overall, the derby was an advert for rugby as it always is. It is one of the largest and proudest club rugby rivalries in the world and Saturday proved that.

In sport the result can only be a positive for one team, and although they gave a good account of themselves, Saints’ director of rugby Jim Mallinder has admitted their play-off hopes are now over. A win was all that mattered from a Northampton point of view, but once the dust has settled, the coaching staff will be able to take a lot from the match into next season, where they will no doubt ride high again.

For Leicester, distant dreams of an unlikely European and domestic double are still in the minds of the coaches, players and supporters. Next week they travel up the road to Nottingham where they will meet Racing 92 in the Champions Cup semi-final.

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