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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'There is no such thing as a run-of-the-mill, tepid, easy-as-it-goes East Midlands Derby'

Mick Cleary: 'There is no such thing as a run-of-the-mill, tepid, easy-as-it-goes East Midlands Derby'
2 months ago

Give me a local derby every time, a raw-boned Northampton against Leicester contest rather than some concocted World Club Championship match between Saints and the Panasonic Wild Knights or Tigers against Queensland Reds. One is proper and deep-rooted while the other will supposedly be the big bucks event, a knockout en route to what you can bet your bottom dollar some marketeer will call ‘the most important club game in the world.’

Those who have a ticket for Saturday’s latest rendition of what is one of the longest-standing, most tribal of rivalries will beg to differ as to the relative appeal of such matches. There may only be Premiership points at stake at Franklin’s Gardens at the weekend, crucial Premiership points it has to be said with Saints aiming to cement their position at the top while Tigers are scrapping away in mid-table to give themselves a wide outside shot (17% according to Oval stats) of making the play-offs. But even if there weren’t there would still be local bragging rights up for grabs. There is no such thing as a run-of-the-mill, tepid, easy-as-it-goes East Midlands Derby.

Administrators never seem to understand just what it is that makes supporters tick. Their latest wheeze is to come up with a World Club Championship as if it will have us all drooling into our morning muesli, salivating at the thought of the best-of-the-best in the respective hemispheres going head-to-head to settle that little teaser (that is on no-one’s lips) as to just who is the dominant club side on the planet. And all this notwithstanding the fact that some of the teams are provinces, some are self-funded, some are… well, you get the picture, even that competition is not a level playing field, particularly as it looks as if it will be inevitably always be played in Europe where can be found a deeper pot of TV money. Roll up! Roll up for the selling of those TV rights for that is the real name of the game.

Tommy Freeman
Top of the table Northampton are in the unfamiliar position of riding higher than their East Midlands rivals (Photo by Stephen White/ Getty Images)

Ordinary fans have more sincere motivation. For all the trilling of executives who have been trying to launch this sort of global event ever since the game went professional, there are precious few in the game whose boat is floated by wondering if the Crusaders (in their pomp) really would have seen off the best that Stade Toulousain could pit against them. Of course, there would be passing interest in what might happen in that particular 80 minutes but equally there would be reservations about one side having ‘home’ advantage, one side being out-of-kilter with the natural rhythm of their season and so on.

The competition also sells itself on the exotic, as if the prospect of unusual match-ups, Bayonne against Bath, Blues against Glasgow Warriors, will somehow have fans stampeding towards ticket booths. This failure to understand just what it is that persuades a supporter to part with his/her money was always evident in conversations about a possible European League. Gloucester against Brive on a Friday night doesn’t quite cut it in the same way that a Gloucester against Bristol fixture might.

Northampton have always been a down-to-earth club, rooted in sound principles of graft and craft, selfless and ego-free. Those who don’t adhere to such values do not have a Northampton postcode for very long.

Fans are not ignorant of the bigger picture, are aware of broader horizons, acknowledge too that TV money is important but, as football has shown, it is not a pan-European or world Super League that dominates thoughts but rather the weekly experience of domestic battles. All of which brings us neatly to a fixture that has stood the test of time.

Saturday’s game is just that sort of occasion. For Saints, it is a chance to confirm their burgeoning status as one of the form teams in the land, notable for the solidity as well as cleverness of their play. Their attention to the basics is as admirable as is the enterprise of their attacking play. A Double is a possibility but such over-reaching thoughts will not feature for one nano-second in conversations this week. Northampton have always been a down-to-earth club, rooted in sound principles of graft and craft, selfless and ego-free. Those who don’t adhere to such values do not have a Northampton postcode for very long.

Northampton Saints coaches
Phil Dawson, Sam Vesty and Matt Ferguson have continued the solid foundations laid by Chris Boyd (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Things are going well for them at the moment but there are plenty at the club who still bear the scars of the dismal times, be it relegation, or ‘the night of the long knives’ when there was turmoil in the boardroom, can look back to when even the likes of a Ian McGeechan or Wayne Smith couldn’t guarantee sustained success. A European Cup in 2000 and a Premiership title in 2014 are the principal entries on the ledger in the pro era. That is why no-one is getting carried away at Franklin’s Gardens, invigorating as their rise back to prominence has been as witnessed by their recent Champions Cup wins over Munster and the Bulls. The Chris Boyd influence is there for all to see which is just as the guru of heads-up, emotionally and intellectually sound rugby had always intended to happen after he returned back to his roots in New Zealand.

Northampton have pedigree and they have momentum. And yet there will not be a single Saints’ fan heading through the gates on Saturday that does not have a flutter of apprehension about the outcome.

‘Leicester couldn’t could they? It would be just like those buggers to spoil the mood. They’ve got play-off desperation to drive them on while we’re almost guaranteed to get across the line. Typical bloody Leicester to pee on our parade.’

Salesi Ma’afu’s red card thump on Tom Youngs which prompted a post-match response that so neatly encapsulated the essence of the former Leicester captain and hooker when he tweeted to Ma’afu, “good shot mate go well in the final”

Cue anxiety-filled fears that would keep a therapist occupied for months.

Well, that’s one line of thinking and given some of the games between the teams over just the last decade or so you can understand the nerves. Heated and fractious are the very least of it.

Manu’s haymaker on Chris Ashton? Salesi Ma’afu’s red card thump on Tom Youngs which prompted a post-match response that so neatly encapsulated the essence of the former Leicester captain and hooker when he tweeted to Ma’afu, “good shot mate go well in the final”.  Tom Wood had clinched that unlikely 14-man win with a 78th minute try.  Or, what of the 2013 final and Dylan Hartley’s sending off for verbal abuse of Wane Barnes? Tempestuous. And terrific.

Tom Youngs
The East Midlands derby hasn’t always been for the faint-hearted as Tom Youngs found out (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

There have been so many more incidents, so many twists and turns in this lengthy tale. Leicester are nothing like the force of old when the Welford Rd trophy cabinet was the most well-oiled unit in the land. 21 front-line titles of various description. Chill winds blow through even the best of them, the Steve Borthwick-led triumph of a couple of years ago being a much-needed upturn.

That Northampton are in the box seats will count for little come kick-off time. Then it will be all about aggression allied to poise, set-piece assurance, breakdown edge, sharp-eyed opportunism and all the traditional passions of a derby. Which is just how we want it and why such a fixture will always endure. It’s the real deal.

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