Chris Boyd described last weekend’s east Midlands derby at Welford Road as the dance of the desperate, one of the English game’s traditional big fixtures, featuring two clubs more used to challenging for the title than lurking in the Premiership’s basement reduced to little relevance beyond local bragging rights.
Northampton and Leicester on Sunday swap their league labours for Europe. The Saints face the last waltz at Exeter in the Champions Cup quarter-final while the Tigers will be looking to emulate their Premier League neighbours on the other side of Aylestone Road and foxtrot their way to victory over Castres in the last eight of the Challenge Cup at Welford Road.
Northampton have defied form at this stage of the European Cup before. In 2007, the year they were relegated from the Premiership, they defeated Biarritz 7-6 in San Sebastián having been doubled by the Basque club in the group stage. But not even their most sanguine supporter would back them to beat the Chiefs, who emerged from their pool undefeated.
“Results have not been good, but the effort, intent, desire and will, apart from Leicester where the performance was unacceptable, I cannot fault,” says Boyd, who is in his second season as Northampton’s director of rugby.
Boyd guided them to the Premiership play-offs in his first, inciting a programmed side to revel in the unstructured, winning six of their first eight league fixtures this season before a run of 10 defeats in 12.
“The season has been disappointing,” he admits. “We have not come out of the lockdown well and we have to find out why. I cannot put my finger on the difference between this season and last: there is no one thing. If I was going to look back, I would now challenge myself on whether the enthusiasm and confidence we developed last year to play was built on a solid foundation. We got on a bit of a roll and maybe the group got ahead of itself. We have talked about the need to go back and put some concrete into the basement.”
For all their problems at loosehead prop, Northampton have a core of internationals, including Owen Franks, Dan Biggar, Courtney Lawes, Teimana Harrison and Lewis Ludlam. “We have to back ourselves,” says Ludlam, the England back-rower. “Crazier things have happened than us going to Sandy Park and getting a result. We know the task we face, but anything can happen in sport and we have to back ourselves.”
Leicester are spending their first season out of the Champions Cup, highlighting a decline that started when they missed out first on what had become an annual trip to Twickenham for the Premiership final and then the play-offs. They have spent the last two campaigns fighting off relegation, pipping Newcastle in 2019 and reprieved this year by Saracens’ disgrace.
Their captain, Tom Youngs, has tasted success and adversity. He regards the club’s presence in the Challenge Cup as an opportunity rather than a stigma. Northampton were beaten convincingly twice by Leicester in the Champions Cup this season and in their past two years in the tournament, the Tigers won only two matches in 12, including a 54-29 victory at home to Castres. Neither club is yet equipped to jive with the surest of foot.
“I have not thought about being in the Challenge Cup rather than the Champions Cup too much,” says Youngs. “It is what it is and what is the point in getting hung up on it? We are in a quarter-final and will enjoy it. I am not one for looking back. We are on a road, looking to get back into the Champions Cup and I am confident we will get there. There is a real sense of direction here under Steve Borthwick and results will come. Europe gives us the chance of a trophy and it is very important to us.”
Northampton and Leicester have won the Champions Cup three times between them, in successive years from 2000, and appeared in seven finals, but two clubs who aim to be a sustainable business rather than rely on the backing of an owner have found themselves dancing on thinner ice. Neither will crack.