Leicester Tigers were beaten 47-20 by Northampton Saints in Round 4 of the Premiership Rugby Cup at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday.
Tigers had fought back into the game midway through the second half after trailing 26-10 but Saints, who had already claimed at least a bonus point, scored three times in the last six minutes to put clear daylight between the teams.
A score from Fred Tuilagi gave Tigers an early lead in the tie – part of the unique derby round in the knockout competition – but Saints were chasing a bonus-point win to guarantee top spot in their pool and claimed three of their own to lead 19-7 at half-time.
The bonus-point for Saints came less than 10 minutes into the second period but Tigers got a precious foothold as a try from Joe Ford cut the deficit to just six points at 26-20 before Saints regathered their grip on proceedings with the late scores.
Tigers included 15 players in the squad who have come through the club’s academy ranks in the matchday squad and gave Tom Varndell a first outing in the shirt since April 2009 while Leonardo Sarto made his debut.
They kept their rivals inside their own half throughout the opening quarter-hour, biting into tackles and making Saints work hard to get out, but a penalty for offside near halfway encouraged their rivals and they made the most of it with an opening score from James Grayson.
After securing lineout ball on the left, and with the advantage for another penalty, Saints put ball through hands to the opposite flank where fly-half Grayson wriggled through a tackle to dot down. He added the extras to tie the score on 15 minutes.
Saints were beginning to build momentum and, although they faltered as they overplayed in midfield, they gained another offside penalty award and again made it count with a second try. This time the ball remained with the forwards as they drove up to the line and hooker James Fish got the final touch. Tempers flared momentarily before Grayson lined up the conversion but he was wide with the kick as Saints led 12-7.
He didn’t have to wait long for another attempt, though, as Saints opened up play inside their own 22 and broke clear. When Jordan Olofowela was wrapped up as he chased back just 20 metres out, Saints won turnover ball and played out to the left where Tigers old boy Barrow dived in to score. This time Grayson adjusted his sights and landed the kick to make it 19-7 with eight minutes remaining in the half.
An error at the restart from the home side gave Tigers field position to build an attack but they lost possession until winning a penalty on the floor with Will Evans and Sam Aspland-Robinson over the ball. Ford stepped up to kick the three-pointer from 25 metres.
He had a chance to replicate that just moments later when Heinrich Brussouw was penalised on the floor but this time Ford hooked wide and the half-time break arrived with Saints still nine points in front.
An offside call against Tigers from the kick-off to the second half gave Saints a chance to go to the corner and Tigers were also marched back 10 metres when captain Harry Wells spoke to the referee, but the defence stood up to the drive this time and wrapped up ball.
They still looked to attack from deep, though, and after creating some space for Tom Collins on the left, Ford had to chase back into the corner to kick out with the hosts closing in.
The lineout just five metres out, though, led to the bonus-point score as Brussouw attacked from close in and forced his way to the line. Grayson added the conversion to stretch the lead to 26-10.
Keen work at the breakdown from Evans on halfway earned a penalty for Tigers and after Tuilagi made territory in front of the posts, the whistle went again and, although Ben White sensed the chance to go quickly, referee Adam Leal brought play back and, instead, Ford kicked the points.
Varndell almost got his first try for Tigers in almost a decade as he raced on to a clever kick from Tom Hardwick, but he gathered at the same time as Jamie Gibson and they both rolled to the deadball line with the ball held off the ground.
Tigers enjoyed a good spell of pressure near the tryline, with the forwards keeping control of the ball and looking to make the most of scrum-time. Saints were warned by referee Leal after coming under pressure at the set-piece. They held out, though, and finally earned a penalty of their own near the touchline when another scrum hit the floor.
The try did come, though, but from very different circumstances as Tuilagi blocked a kick near halfway and Ford recovered possession to run the final 50 metres on his own. The fly-half added the conversion, scraping in off the post, to cut the gap to 26-20 with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Tigers sent on academy scrum-half Jonny Law for his debut as the game restarted but a penalty award deep inside their own half allowed Saints the chance to clear and establish possession once more until scrum-half Reinach managed to spot a gap and dive in for try number five.
Taylor Gough got on for his first taste of senior rugby in the closing stages but the game closed with Tom Collins making use of space wide on the left to score and then scrum-half Reinach broke clear from his own half to latch on to loose ball and score in the final minute.