Leicester Tigers took advantage of Dylan Hartley’s first-half red card to claim a tenth Aviva Premiership title with a 37-17 win over East Midlands rivals Northampton Saints.
The Saints skipper was dismissed right on the stroke of half-time for something said to referee Wayne Barnes after he had given Leicester a penalty which allowed George Ford to give the Tigers a 16-5 half-time lead.
Until that point it had been a ferocious contest with Leicester quicker out of the blocks thanks Niall Morris’ early try and five points from Toby Flood.
But Saints responded through Stephen Myler’s try and some huge collisions, notably from Courtney Lawes on Flood, saw Northampton come back into the game.
Tigers, who had to replace Flood with Ford, showed all their defensive quality to keep Northampton at bay, and kept the scoreboard ticking over at the other end.
And in the last act of the first half, Myler kicked a 22m dropout straight out, giving Tigers a scrum in the centre of the pitch.
The Leicester pack earned a penalty from the scrum, and Hartley, who had already been warned, said something to Barnes and was shown the red card.
Northampton fought back valiantly scoring first in the second half through Ben Foden, only for Graham Kitchener to reply with a try of his own for the Tigers.
Saints would not bow down though, and after some great work from Foden, it was Lee Dickson who went over, Myler’s conversion making it 24-17 to Tigers.
In the end the extra man told though, and when Manu Tuilagi ran straight through a weak Tom Wood tackle to score the Tigers’ third try, the game was up.
And as Saints tried desperately to find a way back into the game Leicester pounced on a hopeful pass from Ken Pisi to send Vereniki Goneva over for the fourth try, with Ford finishing things off with a final penalty.
Richard Cockerill’s side, who had come into the game as favourites, made a lightning quick start, and earned a penalty in the fourth minute when Saints were caught offside.
Flood slotted the penalty and then provided the spark for the first try of the game. First he delayed an inside ball to Goneva, and after the Fijian had made the initial break Flood was on hand again, floating the ball out to Morris for an easy run-in. The England fly-half added the tricky conversion, but Saints responded just as they looked like being cut adrift.
Foden popped up at first receiver to send Pisi away down the right, and while Leicester were able to earn a scrum initially, Saints came back at them, this time down the left.
A quick tap-penalty from Dickson had the Leicester defence scrambling and Luther Burrell was able to send Myler over in the corner to score on 16 minutes.
The breathless nature of the game appeared to be playing into Saints’ hands and they went close again from a Foden break only for Tom Croft to cover back brilliantly.
Then came what could have proved a decisive moment as Lawes put in a thumping tackle of Flood, conceding a penalty in the process.
The Leicester fly-half was shaken and Ben Youngs, taking over the kicking duties missed the ensuing three-pointer.
Lawes was at it again two minutes later, legally this time, and after a second huge hit, Flood had to come off.
Leicester came back thanks to a searing break from Mathew Tait, who had been released by Anthony Allen, and Saints were forced to give away the penalty that Ford slotted to make it 13-5.
But Saints hit back and came within inches of scoring their second try when Jamie Elliott was released down the wing and found Foden inside only for a stunning cover tackle from Kitchener to force the England full-back’s foot into touch as he desperately tried to ground the ball.
Then right on the stroke of half-time came the decisive moment as Ford initially missed a kickable penalty, but when Myler tried to kick the ball straight out from the dropout, he was penalised.
From the scrum on halfway Leicester earned the penalty and Hartley was dismissed as the Tigers took an 11-point lead into the break.
Despite being a man down it was Saints who started the second half the quicker with some great handling down the right. The ball was then spread to the left with Myler’s long pass finding James Wilson, and the Kiwi centre put Foden over in the corner. Myler missed the conversion as Saints trailed by six.
Rather than wobble Leicester hit back straight away, Kitchener sprinting between Soane Tonga’uiha and Brian Mujati to go over and stretch the Tigers lead back to 24-10.
Still Saints would not throw in the towel and after a stunning break from Foden, the ball came to Burrell.
The big centre spotted a gap and as he was hauled down just short of the line Dickson collected a little pop pass to dive over. After consultation with the TMO the try was awarded and Myler’s conversion reduced the deficit to a single score.
Leicester appeared to be wobbling but a great break from Tait got them back on the front foot.
And when Tuilagi got his hands on the ball the Northampton fatigue told as Wood, who had been impressive all game, missed a straight up tackle, allowing the Lions centre to sprint over for the try.
Ford missed the conversion but it made little difference as the Saints had run out of steam, and when Pisi attempted a miracle inside pass in an effort to turn the tide, Steve Mafi collected the ball before lobbing it to Goneva to score.
Ford again missed the conversion but had the final say with a penalty with the last kick of the game to seal the win.