If Richard Cockerill ever finds himself short of employment – and with just a solitary win over Newcastle to show for the first six Aviva Premiership games of this campaign, the dole queue cannot have been too far away – he would do well to consider a career as a boxing promoter.
Before this Saturday’s East Midlands derby, the former England hooker was at his abrasive, blunt best when describing the “healthy respect” between Leicester Tigers and Northampton, stoking expectations for what he called “the biggest game of the season.”
Though the latest version of the fixture at Franklin’s Gardens lacked the manic violence of previous encounters – there were no arm bars, hair-pulling or haymakers in sight – a comprehensive 35-21 result in favour of the visitors justified Cockerill’s musings, unearthing a plethora of tasty talking points.
For a start, Toby Flood sent a resounding message south to Saracens with a two-try, 25-point haul, outlining his credentials to wear the number ten jersey on England’s June tour of South Africa ahead of Owen Farrell and Charlie Hodgson. Naturally, with 10 more of Stuart Lancaster’s Six Nations squad on display (a figure that would have been even more impressive without the absence of Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Dylan Hartley and Calum Clark through injury and suspension), there were other intriguing sub-plots as well.
Ben Youngs and Lee Dickson continued their see-saw act at the top of this country’s scrum-half pecking order, the former finally beginning to shake off the woeful form that ruined his international season. While Dickson scored an irrelevant consolation try late on for the Saints, his afternoon was made torrid by some typical engine-room industry by the away team’s chief tormentors up front, Dan Cole, Tom Croft and Thomas Waldrom.
There was also time for Chris Ashton to re-acquaint himself with the whitewash, sent clear by an intelligent chip by Ben Foden, whose marvellous consistency keeps re-iterating how out of character his five-minute brain explosion at the Stadio Olimpico in February really was.
Amongst all of that inter-EPS one-upmanship and motivation for Lancaster’s grin to keep growing, a Puma in the Tiger pride stole the show as Horacio Agulla proved to be the game-breaker. Three moments of sheer class from the 34-Test Argentinean either side of half-time – a sublime assist for Alesana Tuilagi, a scything tackle on Paul Diggin and a strong finish in the right corner to brush off Northampton’s challenge for good – ensured that the man-of-the-match award was comfortably sewn up by the time he left the fray after an hour.
The upshot of their heaviest ever victory at the Gardens is that Leicester are now prowling at second place in the table, their bid to reach an incredible eighth consecutive Premiership final having gathered pace markedly. In this money-spinning age of the play-off system where momentum is king, any contender must plan their charge to Twickenham with precision. Harlequins have found a second wind, the in-form Exeter Chiefs will harry keenly and Saracens can never be discounted, but, as the spring comes around, the Welford Road residents are ruthless.
In many ways, this weekend was a perfect platform for Cockerill’s charges to banish memories of their World Cup hibernation by beating their nearest, dearest rivals for the fifth consecutive clash running. Besides the significant issue of timing – there are only two more regular season rounds remaining – the heady atmosphere of a local contest provided an apt precursor to knockout rugby which the Tigers appear to thrive on.
February’s 20-19 triumph over champions Saracens, again away from home, showcased little of Leicester’s fluidity. Ambition and accuracy in attack was scarce. Even so, the Geordan Murphy drop-goal 26 phases after the 80 minutes had elapsed epitomised the relentless mentality that the club ingrain within their players.
For the whole of last week, Cockerill will have been urging the same spirit, sensing weakness in the depleted Northampton pack. Minutes before kick-off, he might even have mentioned the need to quieten the home crowd who, with their team leading 6-0 thanks to two early Ryan Lamb penalties, were singing “There’s only one scrum in England.”
Now, unlike its round-ball counterpart, rugby rarely incites ugly scenes between opposing sets of supporters. Fans of either side can sit beside one another without the threat of a physical flare-up, even in the prickliest of matches. Thankfully, scenes as disgusting as those at prior to Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Tottenham, when boos rang around Wembley during a moment’s silence to mark the 23rd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, are unheard of.
Having said that, the hostile tribalism of an Aviva Premiership derby manufactures some very special contests. An arm-wrestle between Bath and Gloucester, either at The Rec or in front of Kingsholm’s baying Shed, is always passionate and partisan in equal measure. Likewise, thanks largely to ambitious marketing teams and faithful financial backing, cross-London tussles have earned occasional outings at Wembley and Twickenham.
At the weekend, the Saints faithful made Franklin’s Gardens into a cauldron, at least for the opening fourteen minutes before Flood’s first try. With that in mind, emerging with five points was a superb return for the Tigers, a smash-and-grab heist of the highest order that stubbornly defied the standard sway of home advantage.
Back in provocative Frank Warren mode at the final whistle, Cockerill announced that his team had sent a “massive psychological message” to the rest of the league, daring them to make their own claims to the tile. He was probably right, but Leicester couldn’t have announced themselves as trophy favourites so convincingly without their “healthy” rivals spurring them on.