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Manu Tuilagi makes comeback as Leicester snatch last-gasp win over Northampton

Published 09/01/2016

England centre Manu Tuilagi made his first appearance in 15 months for Leicester
England centre Manu Tuilagi made his first appearance in 15 months for Leicester

England centre Manu Tuilagi made a long-awaited comeback from injury as Leicester claimed a dramatic last-kick 30-27 victory over their fierce Aviva Premiership rivals Northampton at Welford Road.

New England head coach Eddie Jones looked on as Tigers star Tuilagi, who had been sidelined for 15 months due to a serious groin problem, made a 52nd-minute substitute's appearance before Freddie Burns' injury-time penalty saw Leicester home.

Tuilagi proved a late inclusion on the Leicester bench - his appearance in the match-day 23 was announced less than an hour before kick-off - and he must now wait to see if he makes Jones' first elite player squad, which will be unveiled next Wednesday, 24 days before England's RBS 6 Nations opener against Scotland at Murrayfield.

The 25 times-capped Tuilagi might have expected a comfortable ride after Tigers stormed 21-0 ahead through converted tries from centre Matt Smith, number eight Lachlan McCaffrey and fly-half Owen Williams, who finished with 11 points before departing nursing a suspected broken jaw.

But Saints hit back, initially cutting the gap to four points through tries by Teimana Harrison and George North - JJ Hanrahan added two conversions and a penalty - before two second-half penalties by Williams' replacement Burns appeared to seal the deal for Leicester.

But former Tigers flanker Jamie Gibson scored a third Saints try that Stephen Myler converted, then a 76th-minute Myler penalty looked to have completed a stirring fightback before Burns struck.

While Jones saw Tuilagi back in the fold, though, he missed out on a chance to watch Northampton hooker - and possible new England skipper - Dylan Hartley in action as a rib injury sidelined him from selected bench duty.

It took Leicester just 117 seconds to open their account, with Northampton having no answer to a sparkling move that ended when Smith sliced through weak defence - notably Saints full-back Ben Foden's no-show - for a try that Williams converted for a 7-0 advantage.

A crowd of 25,849 - Leicester's record home attendance for the 20-year professional era - revelled in their team's impressive response from being horribly outgunned by Premiership leaders Saracens seven days ago.

In contrast, there was no end to Northampton's pain as Leicester punished them with two tries in four minutes.

McCaffrey touched down from a brilliantly-executed driving lineout after substitute Tom Croft won quality possession, then Tigers scrum-half Ben Youngs capitalised on more terrible Northampton defending by surging clear and sending his unmarked half-back partner Williams over for another score.

Williams' third successful conversion made it 21-0, and although Hanrahan opened Northampton's account through a 29th-minute penalty, Leicester continued to enjoy complete control of the game.

Tigers lost a groggy Williams seven minutes before the break, being replaced by Burns after he came off second-best following an attempted tackle on Saints' England lock Courtney Lawes, which followed his team-mate Brendon O'Connor's earlier departure.

And Northampton finally found some form, scoring 10 points during the closing minutes of a half they had played second fiddle in for so long.

The Saints forwards began to assert a degree of control, capitalising on a couple of quick penalty awards before driving a lineout and enabling Harrison to claim a touchdown that Hanrahan converted, making it 21-10 at half-time.

And it got better for Northampton within five minutes of the restart when North gathered a bobbling ball to race 70 metres unopposed for a try that Hanrahan converted and give Tigers further cause for concern following an opening half-an-hour when they rarely broke sweat.

Northampton almost scored again after 52 minutes when prop Paul Hill raced for the line and touched down, but referee Wayne Barnes called play back, and after consulting with his television match official, he ruled out the score following a high tackle by Saints centre Luther Burrell on Peter Betham.

The visitors felt aggrieved that Hill's effort was erased, and Burns rubbed salt into their wounds by kicking a 54th-minute penalty that meant Leicester led 24-17.

Another Burns penalty opened up a 10-point gap, then Gibson's effort - after Leicester prop Dan Cole was yellow-carded - and the Myler extras ensured a tense finale.

Myler kept his nerve with an equalising strike four minutes from time, but Burns came up trumps during the dying seconds and Tigers make it seven wins from nine Premiership wins this term.

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