Northampton pair revel in first Tigers derby

Any player about to sample their first taste of one of rugby’s fiercest local rivalries may experience some mixed feelings.

Excitement, undoubtedly, about the challenge ahead. Nervous anticipation, too, about fulfilling their individual role in a carefully crafted game plan.

For Northampton’s Tom Pearson and Fin Smith, there may also be just a tiny sense of relief.

Both will start Saturday’s 252nd derby against Leicester Tigers, having been rescued from rugby redundancy after former clubs London Irish and Worcester Warriors went into administration.

“I’ve watched plenty of East Midlands derbies over the years, so now to be potentially involved in one is so exciting,” Pearson told BBC Look East.

“Even the first meeting on Monday of this week was just to let everyone know what this game’s about, the history of it and how seriously it is taken.

“When you think about derbies in the Premiership, the East Midlands one is up there.”

Pearson scored 10 tries in two seasons with London Irish and his 235 regular-season tackles in 2022-23 was the second highest tally in the Premiership.

He has continued that form for Saints and was part of England training camps ahead of the World Cup, winning his first cap in a warm-up match against Wales in August.

The 24-year-old views Saturday’s game against Steve Borthwick’s former club Leicester as a potential stepping stone towards cementing a place in the England head coach’s plans.

“Cardiff was a dream debut. The game was so constant, you cannot switch off – the physicality and awareness and concentration was something I hadn’t experienced before,” Pearson said.

“I was disappointed not to be involved in the Rugby World Cup, but my thoughts have turned to the Six Nations, and I have to be on my game.

“I know what Steve Borthwick wants from me, I just have to show him and East Midlands derbies are just part of that.”

‘A young ambitious team’

Despite being signed by Saints just eight days after London Irish filed for administration, leaving the Premiership with only 10 teams this season, Pearson remains concerned about the financial health of the domestic game.

He added: “It’s such a shame, the brand and style of rugby is improving year on year.

“It’s a better spectacle, (and) to see clubs disappear, affecting lots of people in a small market where there aren’t that many jobs going around, it’s frightening and you don’t know what’s around the corner.

“The game can turn itself around though, I’m confident. I’m really enjoying it here. We are a young ambitious team.”

Smith went through the same experience a few months earlier when Worcester were suspended from the Premiership because of ongoing financial issues and terminated the contracts of their players.

He had been their starting number 10 when they won the Premiership Rugby Cup in May 2022 by beating London Irish – minus Pearson – after extra time, having made his league debut 14 months earlier at the age of 18 years and 313 days.

Smith, the grandson of former Scotland and British and Irish Lions prop Tom Elliot, was not without a club for long as Saints wasted no time snapping up a fly-half director of rugby Phil Dowson described at the time as a “really high-potential player” in a multi-year deal.

That potential was evident as he scored 144 points in 16 starts last season, and has so far added 77 in eight games in 2023-24.

“I’m still making lots of mistakes and there’s a lot I’ve got to get better at, but it feels like there’s definitely parts of my game I’ve improved,” he told BBC Radio Northampton. “Some of my decision-making is so much better than it would have been when I joined – I still feel I’ve got a lot more to learn, and a lot more to give as well.”

‘No-one particularly likes Leicester’

Saints have won on three of their last five visits to Welford Road in the Premiership, with just one point separating the teams last season as Saints came out on top 19-18 in a nail-biting finish in late January.

Smith was absent for that game, having been called into England’s Six Nations squad – although he has yet to win a senior cap.

Ollie Sleightholme scored Northampton's only try in last season's Premiership win at Leicester

“I’ve been told that’s quite a big game,” he joked, when asked about the East Midlands derby. “We had a great win there (last season) – I watched it on TV and it was such a cool one for us to win.

“It’s going to be a massive game and just from chatting to the lads, no-one particularly likes Leicester, so we’ll be going there with a job to do and hopefully we can upset the home crowd a little bit.”

Saints bounced back from defeats in their opening two games to win the last three and are fourth in the table, while Leicester are ninth, with just one victory to show for their efforts under Dan McKellar thus far.

“I’ve heard that you can’t really describe the atmosphere, it’s so fiery, so much tension, the fans are so passionate about it. I’m hoping it’s not going to shock me too much,” said Smith.

“The lads told me you’ll be getting booed and having abuse shouted at you and there’ll probably be a few scuffles on the pitch as well. That’s all just stuff that you’ve got to get your head round.”

Smith expects the Tigers to be “massively fired up” in front of their own fans. “We’re aware of the challenge, but also confident that if we go there and play some of our best rugby, we can beat anyone.”