Leicester Tigers were beaten 18-23 by Northampton Saints in Round 17 of the Gallagher Premiership season at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Saturday despite two tries from Nemani Nadolo on his return to action.
Saints, with just one defeat away from home since New Year, led from the 11th minute and were never headed as Tigers looked to add to six successive home wins.
A try from second-rower David Ribbans gave Saints the early lead and they were 15-10 in front at half-time with Rory Hutchinson also on the scoresheet, with Nadolo providing the Tigers try.
That advantage was increased with penalties from Dan Biggar and a Sam Matavesi try, but Tigers stayed in the game as Nadolo’s second reduced the gap to just five points and also had two more opportunities late on only to be closed out by the visitors’ defence.
Saints had been forced into late changes with Teimana Harrison, Ehran Painter and Ollie Sleightholme failing fitness tests, which meant promotion from the bench for Shaun Adendorff, Paul Hill and Tommy Freeman.
Hanro Liebenberg and Kobus van Wyk returned to Steve Borthwick’s starting line-up and the Tigers head coach was also able to add Nadolo and Cyle Brink to the matchday 23 on their return from injury.
An early knock-on at the Robin Hood Stand end gave Tigers important territory but they were met with stern defence as Luke Wallace was forced out of play on the right touchline.
Steward then had to step in to stop a quick break Tommy Freeman on the Saints left before the visitors claimed the opening score.
Building play with ball in hand within reach of the tryline, it was Ribbans who finally reached out to get the try. Biggar’s conversion kick came back out off the top of the right-hand post.
Tigers had a penalty from the restart and gained an extra 10 metres when Biggar was marched back by referee Karl Dickson, but the attack was ended just short as Tom Youngs steered a maul forward.
Ellis Genge left three tacklers in his wake as he carried in attack and Ford put Steward through a gap until Saints shut him down. Play came back for a penalty, though the TMO did check a tackle on Kelly and decided head contact had been unavoidable as the centre met Lewis Ludlam.
Ford landed his team’s first points from the kick with 18 minutes gone on the clock.
Nadolo came off the bench as an HIA replacement for Kelly, but he was unable to hold on to a pass from Ford as he came into the line 20 metres out.
Saints then turned defence into attack and into a second try as Hutchinson made an interception on the Tigers 10-metre line and ran in unopposed. Biggar’s kick made it 12-3 in their favour.
Brink ran on as a blood replacement for Wallace, and strong work from Dan Cole gained a breakdown penalty near halfway, with the referee again marching Saints an extra 10 metres.
Wallace returned after treatment for a blood injury as Saints sent on Tom James to replace the injured Alex Mitchell entering the final 10 minutes of the half.
Quick ball from a Tigers maul presented a first chance for Nadolo, with Steward’s clever kick into the left-hand corner bouncing tantalisingly into the corner. But Nadolo nudged the ball forward as he reached out with defender Matt Proctor.
Tigers kept pressure on through another Nadolo carry and a powerful run from Matt Scott, but when play came to a halt out wide on the right, the referee and TMO came back for contact by Scott in an earlier tackle and Dickson sent the centre to the sidelines.
Wiese made a punishing carry through the centre of the defence and, although Biggar made an important tackle, a penalty award kept Tigers in rival territory and led to a try for Nadolo.
The first push from the lineout ended just short and Saints kept making tackles until eventually the big wing pushed over. Ford’s kick made it 10-12 with a minute remaining in the opening half.
But a penalty for obstruction at the restart gave Biggar the kick to push the Saints lead back to five points at half-time.
Ahsee Tuala replaced Piers Francis for Saints at the break and they had an immediate penalty when Liebenberg grabbed scrum-half James but was whistled for failing to release. Biggar’s kick from 40 metres made the lead 18-10.
Nadolo’s carry broke two tackles to find Liebenberg in support and when the whistle went at the tackle zone, Ford shot for goal but saw his kick come back off the post.
Scott returned to the field from his yellow card, but Harry Wells was then penalised for his challenge as Biggar cleared and then carded after check with the TMO.
Retribution was immediate as Saints scored through Sam Matavesi straight from a lineout move in the left-hand corner, latching on to Freeman’s carry. Biggar was off-target with the conversion, with Saints 23-10 in front.
The visitors enjoyed long periods of possession through their backs, with Tuala picking his way forward on the right, and Hutchinson and Proctor keeping ball alive through successive phases.
Charlie Clare and Luan de Bruin, fresh off the bench, were at the heart of a maul drive which gained valuable metres in the Saints 22, but when Tigers carried towards the posts, untidy ball was lost.
The scrum, though, did bring a penalty in front of the posts and Ford cut the deficit to 10 points with the kick as play entered the final quarter.
Wells was back on the field and almost found his way to the line as he followed progress from Jack Van Poortvliet and Calum Green. But Tigers retained composure and Ford was able to play to the left where Nadolo was able to finish.
Although Ford was unable to add the extras from the left touchline, Tigers were back within a score at 18-23 and gained further encouragement as Brink and Liebenberg swooped to win a penalty as Wood as isolated on the ball near halfway.
Ribbans won a valuable penalty as he stole ball inside the Saints half, only for Scott to make an important interception in midfield as the visitors looked to open up in attack again.
Two tackles from Liebenberg stemmed a Saints attack on the touchline, and the back-rower palmed lineout ball back for Wiese to carry again.
A big scrum from Tigers provided another chance for Tigers, and Saints had to end the game a man short when JJ Tonks was sin-binned at the breakdown.
Tigers carried heavily in attack but they were twice kept 10 metres out from the tryline after building pressure and twice penalised as Saints flooded the breakdown with the clock ticking down.