Leicester Tigers’ unbeaten run ended in a 21-27 defeat by Northampton Saints in front of a capacity crowd at Welford Road on Saturday
Trailing by 10 points early on, Tigers fought back with a try from Telusa Veainu – his 10th of the season – and went ahead briefly with a Matt Toomua try on the half-hour.
But Saints were 17-12 in front at half-time, despite losing skipper Rob Horne to what looked like a serious injury in the opening minute of the game, and stretched the lead to 12 points with an Ahsee Tuala try soon after the restart,
Two George Ford penalties got the deficit back under double figures but it was 21-27 inside the last 10 minutes when Tigers had a score from Jonah Holmes chalked off for obstruction in the backline and Saints got reward for their dogged defence in closing out the victory as Tigers slipped out of the top four in the table with two rounds remaining.
Tigers went into the game as the form team in the Aviva Premiership with 24 points from a possible 30 in the previous six games, but trying to avoid a fourth home league defeat of the season while Saints were chasing a double after winning the opening derby of the season at Franklin's Gardens in September.
In team news announced on Friday, Tigers brought Tom Youngs and Matt Smith into the starting XV, while Ben Youngs and Holmes returned to the squad after injury. Saints were without England duo Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes, but included former Tigers duo Jamie Gibson and Charlie Clare in their matchday squad.
Sione Kalamafoni caught the kick-off from Saints but Horne remained on the floor as he made contact and the game came to a halt with just 12 seconds gone on the clock. After lengthy attention from his own medical team, Horne left the field on a stretcher and was taken straight to a waiting ambulance.
Luther Burrell ran on as a replacement with Ben Foden taking over as captain as the game restarted.
An early chance went begging when Tigers over-shot a lineout in the left-hand corner. But they were back on the attack with a 40-metre break from Matt Toomua which was halted just 15 metres out.
Tigers got even closer with seven minutes played, Toomua getting forward before passing to Adam Thompstone, but full-back Tuala got across to make the tackle in the corner.
It was Saints who opened the scoring with Gibson beating an attempted tackle from Kalamafoni to present Foden with the chance to score in the corner. Stephen Myler added the kick for a seven-point lead on eight minutes.
Myler added another three points when Genge was penalised in possession 30 metres from his own line as Saints stretched their lead into double figures.
Veainu cut that deficit after a sweeping attack from Tigers, with Genge and Mike Fitzgerald carrying strongly before the full-back arrived to run in. George Ford provided the conversion to make it 7-10 with a quarter of the match gone.
Jonny May then had a chance to show his pace as Tigers opened up play after a forward drive on the opposite flank. The England wing chipped ahead but the ball evaded the grasp of either May or Veainu just 10 metres from the Saints line.
Both sides were keen to run the ball, leading to long passages of play but also to spilled ball and some desperate offloads when more control was needed.
George North left the field with a cut on 25 minutes as he contested possession with Smith, but when Tigers were given another penalty they again missed their man with the throw on the right.
There was another stoppage as Adam Thompstone pulled up with an injury before Saints had put-in at a scrum just inside the Tigers half. But a superb steal on the floor from Luke Hamilton averted the danger.
Tigers had some good fortune in claiming a second try on 29 minutes, with Graham Kitchener charging down a kick at a ruck and Toomua reaching the loose ball to score. Referee Matthew Carley had a long conversation with TMO Sean Davey to determine, first, that the lock had been onside and then had not knocked-on in the race to the ball with scrum-half Cobus Reinach before awarding the score.
Ford was unable to add the conversion but Tigers were in front for the first time at 12-10.
It did not last long, though, as Saints drilled a penalty into the left-hand corner when North returned to the fray after treatment for a facial cut and were rewarded with a try from Reinach following a crisp lineout move to snatch the advantage again. Myler’s conversion made it 12-17.
It stayed that way up to half-time despite a promising break from May on the left and Kalamafoni in the middle, but Saints were awarded a penalty at the breakdown just as pressure was building.
Ford got the second half under way with Tigers looking for a win to stay in the semi-final spots but Saints found the breakthrough with a try from Tuala.
Again it was scrum-half Reinach who made the decisive move, breaking clear on the right and leaving the defence outnumbered as they back-pedalled. Myler chipped over the extras as the lead reached 12 points.
A kick into the corner gave Tigers the glimpse of a chance but the lineout drive was stopped at source and ball wrapped up by the defence. Even though Reinach could only clear up to the 25 metres with his kick from the following scrum, the Saints defence was quickly up to block Tigers progress.
A scrum penalty in Tigers' favour followed and Ford pushed his forward pack into the corner, where Fitzgerald retained at full stretch in the lineout. The whistle blew again, Tigers went to the same corner and Fitzgerald secured ball again as Tigers made use of a penalty advantage to attack the line once more.
The referee spoke to stand-in skipper Foden as Tigers called for a penalty from the penalty on the Saints five-metre line and they stayed there following the award of a free-kick but this time Saints timed their push and manhandled Tigers off their own ball, with the visiting fans celebrating as the whistle blew in favour of their team.
Ben Youngs made his return from injury on 57 minutes as Sam Harrison made way in his 150th appearance for the club, and Tatafu Polota-Nau joined the front row.
A scrum penalty on halfway provided a platform for Genge to run at the Saints defence and a high tackle on the runaway prop brought a penalty which Ford knocked over quickly to make it 15-24 on the hour.
Another lost lineout gave Saints ball just past halfway and Logovi’i Mulipola replaced Dan Cole as play started again, with the home pack providing a big push to disrupt the visitors and then win a penalty at the set-piece.
Again the platform was provided with a kick into the corner but Gibson stole ball as Tigers went to set up a lineout drive and Northampton cleared their lines again.
Genge once more carried strongly before Saints found themselves down to 14 men after a yellow card for Alex Waller, awarded for a tackle in front of his own posts. Ford’s kick made it 18-24 and Tigers were finally back within scoring range.
Pressure was building but big defence from Api Ratuniyarawa and Teimana Harrison kept Tigers out and Saints earned a penalty at another breakdown with the ball-carrier isolated.
The cheers from the visiting bench grew when Saints won a scrum penalty in front of the posts and Myler's kick pushed the visitors 18-27 in front with less than 10 minutes remaining.
Ford quickly added a three-pointer of his own to reach 1,000 points in his Premiership career and the home fans were on their feet when Veainu squirmed free and it looked like the try was coming as Tigers had numbers spare on the right, but Toomua’s pass went behind Hamilton out wide and Saints slammed the door shut.
Jonah Holmes then thought he'd provided a vital score under the posts, only for the referee to consult with the television match official and rule that there had been obstruction in midfield just as the replacement wing had received the scoring pass.
Holmes and North then contested a high ball, with the referee indicating a knock-on first from the Tigers wing before being advised that it had come off his opposite number. Tigers were able to win scrum ball with the clock into the last minute and both sides frantically looking to gain clean possession.
Another penalty took Tigers up to the halfway line on the right but, when Saints stole ball on the floor at the breakdown, they were able to play out the final minute in possession and secure a first league double over their local rivals since 2003/04.