Leicester Tigers 27 Northampton Saints 14: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings

Sometimes to experience the highs you have to sample the lows - just ask the Saints team of 2013/14.

By Tom Vickers
Sunday, 12th June 2022, 2:10 pm
Updated Sunday, 12th June 2022, 6:20 pm
Courtney Lawes and Co gave it their all
Courtney Lawes and Co gave it their all

That was a group of players who had endured some of the most agonising moments the game of rugby union has to offer.

But, eventually, they turned that agony to ecstasy during a sensational double-winning campaign that brought the club its first, and so far only, Premiership title.

Saints had lost Premiership play-off semi-finals to Saracens, Leicester and Harlequins, they had lost a Premiership final to Tigers and a Heineken Cup final to Leinster.

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But they finally managed to channel all of that hurt into a campaign in which they simply refused to be beaten when the big moments came.

Why is all of this relevant?

Because it is something the current crop of Saints players can use as a source of comfort and inspiration following Saturday's events at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.

This is, by and large, a group of young Saintsmen, many of whom don't possess the widespread international experience that the team of 2013/14 had garnered.

Some players, the likes of Courtney Lawes and Dan Biggar, do, of course, have it.

They know what it's like to play in big knockout matches with the heat well and truly on.

But many of their fellow players who took the field on Saturday are still at the start of their journey in that respect.

That's not to say they were overawed by the occasion, far from it.

They gave more than as good as they got against Tigers.

It was just that in some of the key moments of the match, occasional panic set in and they either came up short or they were cruelly denied.

Courtnall Skosan, one of the more experienced members of the squad, had a difficult afternoon from a finishing perspective.

Such a clinical try-scorer for much of the season, he couldn't connect the dots when it mattered.

But let's not forget that this is his first Premiership semi-final, in an environment that can unsettle even the most battle-hardened of players.

It was one of those days for Skosan and for Saints, who were too often their own worst enemy against Tigers.

They played some lovely stuff but there were too many errant passes and knock-ons at key times.

The home side, like a good defensive tennis player, just stayed in the rally and eventually saw the unforced errors come.

When they did, they were clinical in playing the passing shots that took them to the Twickenham showpiece.

Saints, having looked so good for 50 minutes, despite the lack of razor-sharp finishing, were eventually outgunned as they lost Dan Biggar to injury and Oisin Heffernan to the sin bin.

The Heffernan decision, made for a seatbelt tackle on Jasper Wiese, was a harsh blow that prompted plenty of questions.

How could he and Guy Porter, who skittled Rory Hutchinson with a shoulder-to-head challenge at the end of the first half, have been given the same punishment?

It felt reminiscent of the 2011 semi-final at Welford Road when Chris Ashton was sin-binned alongside Manu Tuilagi, albeit Tuliagi having produced a far more calculated and shocking offence than Porter did.

And as it did that day, it left Saints as the valiant losers again.

It is a tag they have had far too often since they were promoted back to the Premiership under Jim Mallinder in 2008.

They have played in eight Premiership play-off semi-finals since then and won just two, in 2013 at Saracens and in 2014 at home to Tigers.

They could, and should, have won many more than that.

But on each occasion, it wasn't meant to be.

And you really felt that here, especially as the loss of Paul Hill and George Furbank to injury prior to the game proved so costly.

Had Furbank been fit, Skosan wouldn't have started, and had Hill be available, Heffernan wouldn't have been in the squad.

That is not to blame either Skosan or Heffernan, it's just a statement that shows how sometimes the rugby universe works in mysterious ways.

Maybe this is meant to be Tigers' year?

And if it is, then their team will have reached the Premiership peak without having to sample those tough play-off experiences that Saints had to before they won it.

But Tigers did have their own knockout heartache not so long ago, losing to a polished Leinster side in the Champions Cup quarter-final at Mattioli Woods Welford Road.

Maybe that experience helped them here, who knows?

It is very rare that a team just comes from where Tigers have - they finished sixth, a place below Saints, last season - and wins it in their first season back in the top four.

So often it is a building process.

And Saints certainly seem to be building something special.

Though they are now renowned for their swashbuckling style, which has seen them rack up a whopping 100 tries this season, they have shown they can match the top packs in the country.

But when they have done that, their ruthless attacking game has deserted them.

It's been like plugging holes in a boat, just when one is sorted, another opens up.

You felt if they were going to lose to Tigers, it would be because the home forwards won them the match.

It didn't materlialise in that manner and it was actually Saints' attacking strength that proved to be their weakness.

They could, and should have been well ahead at half-time.

As it was, Tigers got off the hook and headed in level at 6-6.

Then when Saints threatened to get up and running at 11-6 up in the second period, Tigers stuck with it, fought hard and got that helping hand of the Heffernan yellow card.

And once Tigers got that grip, they never let it go.

There is no doubt that Steve Borthwick's side deserve huge acclaim for the season they have had, topping the table and heading to Twickenham next Saturday.

But Saints have seen what the table-topping team looks like, and it's nothing for them to fear.

With that in mind, they must try to maintain this momentum they have built up during the past three months, which is easier said than done when there is a big summer break ahead.

Chris Boyd, having done so much good work at the club, will now depart, but he has laid the foundations for a burgeoning side that has showed it can mix it with the best.

Now, like that Saints team did in 2013/14, they must find a way to reach the next level, using this experience to fuel them rather than floor them.

How they rated…

TOMMY FREEMAN – yet another display full of class from the young back, who handled the pressure of the high ball so well and who attacked with typical gusto and brilliance when he got the chance... 8

MATT PROCTOR – has thankfully had a bit more luck with injury of late, allowing him to show just how vital he is to this team with his physicality and skill... 7.5

FRASER DINGWALL – made some of his trademark jackhammer hits and tried to free his arms up in attack to get Saints going but Tigers stopped him well enough... 7

RORY HUTCHINSON – there were a couple of flashes of his brilliance as he sidestepped Tigers players and created chances that Saints should have made more of... 7.5

COURTNALL SKOSAN – not the day the wing would have dreamed of as chances came and went for him. But he did largely do well under the high ball... 5

DAN BIGGAR – some of his kick-passes were sublime and he was looking good until injury forced him off with Saints well in the game early in the second half... 7

ALEX MITCHELL – thought he had scored during the first half but saw his effort chalked off. Couldn't quite get the control he wanted in the game and made an error or two under pressure... 6

MANNY IYOGUN – continues to look like a huge prospect and this experience will do him the world of good as he took on Dan Cole in the heat of a derby-day knockout clash and didn't look fazed... 7

SAM MATAVESI – will rue one moment where he didn't spot support players on his left, but this was another strong showing from the hooker, whose progression at Saints has been huge... 7

EHREN PAINTER – another promising Welford Road performance for the young prop, who more than held his own against Ellis Genge at scrum time... 7

ALEX COLES – has had such a superb season for Saints and he put in plenty of effort here, but a couple of moments didn't go his way... 6

API RATUNIYARAWA – one incredible gather helped Saints to score during the second half, and this man, who has become so key for the club, signed off with another strong showing here... 7

COURTNEY LAWES – another huge display from the England star as he threw his body on the line in the bid to help his team over it... 7.5

LEWIS LUDLAM – what a season the skipper has had! He was at it again here, flying forward and taking no prisoners, but his effort didn't result in the win his performances have merited... 7.5

JUARNO AUGUSTUS – there were a couple of moments when it looked like he would brush off Tigers players in trademark style, and he is only getting better game by game... 6.5

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

JAMES GRAYSON (for Biggar 51) – not an easy cameo appearance for the fly-half as Tigers started to get hold of the game and put pressure on the Saints half-backs late on... 5.5

MIKE HAYWOOD (for Matavesi 53) – did what he could but Tigers got a grip on the game and refused to relinquish it late on... 5.5

ALEX WALLER (for Iyogun 53) – got through some work after coming on, making his tackles, but Saints couldn't get the job done on this occasion... 5.5

OISIN HEFFERNAN (for Painter 53) – wasn't on the field for long before he was hit with a yellow card for a seatbelt tackle. It was no more than a penalty... 4.5

DAVID RIBBANS (for Coles 55) – tried to add his physicality to the mix, but Saints started to find themselves on the back foot more as the game went on... 5.5

AARON HINKLEY (for Augustus 55) – looked to get involved and stop the Tigers threat by pressuring them at the breakdown, but they guarded against that well... 5.5

CHRON STAR MAN - George Ford (Leicester Tigers)