The East Midlands derby is one of the most fiercely contested and famous rivalries in rugby union, and has become a match sparking plenty of interest over time. This edition of the derby, played at Welford Road, saw Leicester Tigers face Northampton Saints with both teams in poor form. Leicester have been second bottom of the table for the whole season, whilst Northampton were winless in four going into this game. In this analysis, we will focus on the positives of Leicester’s performance, as well as looking at where they still need to improve. We will also look in depth at why Northampton struggled to make an impact in this Gallagher Premiership game.
Leicester Tigers Northampton Saints
15. F. Steward 15. G. Furbank
14. K. Murimurivalu 14. A. Tuala
13. G. Porter 13. M. Proctor
12. M. Scott 12. R. Hutchinson
11. N. Nadolo 11. T. Naiyaravoro
10. Z. Henry 10. D. Biggar
9. B. Youngs 9. A. Mitchell
- F. Gigena 1. F. Van Wyk
- T. Youngs (c) 2. J. Fish
- D. Cole 3. O. Franks
- T. Lavanini 4. D. Ribbans
- C. Green 5. A. Ratuniyarawa
- H. Wells 6. C. Lawes
- L. Wallace 7. L. Ludlam
- H. Liebenberg 8. T. Harrison (c)
Leicester Tigers’ Strengths
If we look first at Leicester, and see what they did well to win the game, then we can see several things worth mentioning. Firstly, their defence was strong, and they anticipated where the ball would go, closing down the space quickly and before Northampton could do anything with it.
In this image, you can see how Leicester Tigers have formed an arrow formation, pointing directly at where the ball is. Northampton Saints hooker James Fish has the ball, and is the player in the blue circle, having been passed the ball by his teammate and Wales fly-half Dan Biggar. Leicester have centred on Fish, and are applying heavy pressure on him. This was a constant feature of the game, and it forced the Saints into making errors in possession.
Given we have seen Leicester not want to pressure their opponents so much in these situations in previous matches, this showed that new head coach Steve Borthwick seems to be starting to get his message across to the players. This particular situation led to the first try of the game, scored by Leicester’s England scrum-half Ben Youngs, after Saints full-back George Furbank gave the ball away in a tackle, and Youngs picked it up and ran under the posts on his 250th Leicester appearance. Therefore, we can see how pressuring the opponent could help Leicester Tigers to be more competitive in matches.
Here is another example of Leicester’s newfound attacking defence. We can see how Northampton Saints are in possession, and are passing the ball down the line towards the nearside of the pitch. It is Scotland centre Rory Hutchinson who is making the pass to England lock Courtney Lawes here, but you can see from the red arrows how Leicester are very quickly getting up to the Saints’ players, again looking to stop them passing the ball whilst in this area, and not allowing them to get any further forward.
It is another Scotland centre, Matt Scott, who joined Leicester during the break from Edinburgh Rugby, who gets up and makes the tackle on Lawes in this image, but the main point to take about this is that Leicester are moving up the pitch, not waiting for their opponents to come to them.
This is another way that Leicester ensured the pressure was on Northampton in this game. We can see how Northampton Saints scrum-half Alex Mitchell has taken the ball in the air, and is quickly being tackled by Leicester Tigers’ South African back row forward Hanro Liebenberg. Mitchell has claimed the ball from a high Leicester box kick, but the tactic that the Tigers are using here is that they want to get players up the field and underneath the ball, or, if Saints claim the ball, then they want players ready to tackle them as soon as they hit the ground, as is happening here.
The key thing here is that Liebenberg has waited until Mitchell has touched the ground, because, if he took out the scrum-half in the air, it would be a foul and a penalty against him. However, because he is on the ground, it is legal, and is therefore a good tactic to have in their arsenal. This is only one example of this happening, but it was a constant feature of Leicester’s play throughout the match, and it meant that, again, Northampton had no time to use the ball when they got it.
Leicester Tigers’ weaknesses
We have looked at Leicester Tigers’ strengths in the game, but we will now look at the things that meant they were still defensively suspect at times.
The first thing to mention is that Leicester occasionally switch off at key moments. Here, Northampton Saints are picking the ball off the ground following a breakdown situation, but you can see from the red line how Leicester have drifted across towards the ball, not covering the gap. This has opened up the space for Northampton to attack through, and scrum-half Mitchell here does just that, picking up the ball and making a run through into this space. Fortunately for Leicester, they were able to bring Mitchell down and stop his run shortly afterwards, and they won a penalty for a double movement by Northampton, but this lapse in concentration could have been costly for them.
If we look at this image, we can see another example of Leicester Tigers leaving gaps open. Admittedly, they are down to 13 players here, with Argentina lock Tomas Lavanini and flanker Harry Wells both in the sin bin, but these gaps meant that Leicester’s closely packed defensive line, which we saw at the start of this analysis, has become drawn apart, meaning Northampton Saints have space to use the ball here.
Former New Zealand prop Owen Franks is in possession of the ball, in the blue circle, and is looking to use the space to get Northampton up the pitch. He finds Saints’ other prop, Emmanuel Iyogun, and they were helped by Leicester Tigers, who, in their haste to close up the space and win the ball back, were making errors in defence. This meant that Saints were continually given the advantage.
As mentioned, Leicester were down to 13 men at this point, and they did well whilst two players down, but this is what we have seen from Leicester when they have all 15 on the pitch, so it is something they still need to work on.
In both of these images, we can see another thing that Leicester Tigers need to watch when defending. In both images, players have stepped out of line, but missed their tackles. This has given Northampton the space to get behind the Leicester defence, gaining crucial ground.
In the first image, it is flying Australian winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, who is very difficult to stop at the best of times, who is in possession and charging through the line. Leicester full-back Freddie Steward has stepped out to try and end his attacking run, but doesn’t manage to do so. This has led to the gap appearing, and Naiyaravoro runs straight through. Whilst he doesn’t score for Northampton in this situation, as Steward eventually tackles him (and does well in doing so), he does make a lot of metres for his team, and that is the point here.
You are probably wondering what Leicester can do to improve this, because they do need to tackle him. One solution could be for Steward to stay back in the line, rather than stepping out of it, and then he can tackle the winger with his teammates, with each helping the others to tackle him successfully.
The second image shows substitute prop Paul Hill in possession for Northampton Saints, and he has again been charged down by a Leicester player. Hill was given the ball by another substitute, hooker Mikey Haywood, and now has space ahead of him to run through and score a try, which he does. This is therefore another example of Leicester giving Northampton too much space at times, and the fact that Hill scored a try from breaking through here shows how moments like this can be costly for Leicester.
Northampton Saints’ game
We have analysed the strengths and weaknesses of Leicester Tigers’ performance, and now we will look at Northampton Saints’ game, seeing why they struggled to get themselves into it.
We will start with the positive, which was that George Furbank was accurate with his kicking at times. In this image, Leicester Tigers are still without Tomas Lavanini and Harry Wells, both of whom are jumpers at lineouts, so what Furbank is doing here is to force Leicester into a lineout when they are weakened in that area. This was how Northampton looked to take advantage of being two players up, and pile pressure on Leicester next to their try line.
This is only one positive point, but, as Northampton ultimately lost the match, we need to have a look at the reasons why they did so.
One thing, which we have seen from other teams in the Premiership in recent games, is that they tend to pass backwards, which means that they effectively lose any ground that they have made up. We can see in the image how Saints scrum-half Alex Mitchell is in possession, looking to pass the ball to a teammate, continuing the quick attack. He has two clear options for this pass. The blue arrow shows the pass that he could have made, which would have enabled Northampton to get behind the Tigers’ defensive line much more easily. However, he instead makes a pass behind that player, to his other teammate in that area, as the yellow arrow shows. This gives Leicester a chance to reorganise themselves, and Ben Youngs ends up intercepting the pass, and winning Leicester a penalty. Therefore, we can see how this was a good Saints attack, but the pass going too far backwards meant that it was ended relatively easily. This comes down to decision-making, and it is something that Northampton need to be aware of.
The final theme of Northampton Saints’ game was handling errors, which they were making a lot of. In these next two images, we can see two separate examples of these.
In the first image, we can see how Northampton are looking to take advantage of a gap on the far side of the Leicester defence. Rory Hutchinson has passed the ball to his fellow centre, Matt Proctor, but Proctor fumbles the ball and knocks it on, handing Leicester the ball in a very simple way.
In the second image, Northampton are passing the ball down the line, eventually reaching Taqele Naiyaravoro, who is in the blue circle. Again, you can see how Leicester have got up to Northampton from the red line and circle, linking back to the first section in this analysis. In the same way, Naiyaravoro is being closed down by Leicester, as the red arrow shows. This pressure means that the winger knocks the ball on very easily after being passed the ball from Hutchinson. We have already looked at how Leicester closed down Northampton’s attackers, but it was these errors by the Saints that ensured that Leicester were given territory in cheap ways. These handling errors were just one reason why Northampton struggled to get into the game.
In conclusion, this East Midlands derby gave us a game full of interesting points and tactics to analyse. We have looked at how Leicester Tigers took control early on and forced Northampton Saints into making errors, but we have also seen how Northampton made plenty of other errors when not under pressure by Leicester. Overall, Leicester will be happy to have claimed only their second win since the restart, whilst Northampton have now lost five Premiership games in a row, and any hopes of breaking into the playoff places are long gone. The Premiership takes a break this weekend, with European competitions taking centre stage, but it will be Leicester who will be happier with how this run of games in the Premiership has ended for them.