Phil Dowson rued Northampton Saints’ profligacy in the attacking 22 as his side fell just short of an opening round win over Sale Sharks.
Despite being camped in enemy territory for large spells and up against 14 men for the final passage, the men in Black, Green and Gold could not find a killer third try that would have levelled the scores and handed Fin Smith a kick to win it.
All of Sale’s points came in the first half – with Tom Roebuck, Tom O’Flaherty and Ethan Caine all touching down, and Rob du Preez adding five points from the tee.
Tommy Freeman opened the scoring with an early try, Smith kicked five points, while James Ramm grabbed the second-half’s only score with a wonderful breakaway try that ultimately earned Saints the consolation of a losing bonus point.
“Of course we aspire to more, of course we want it to be better and get a result up here,” said Director of Rugby, Dowson.
“But there were loads of aspects of that which were very positive, and we actually had loads of opportunities with which we probably could’ve won.’’Phil Dowson
“I think particularly when we were in the 22, which is traditionally where we’ve been very, very strong in attack, we didn’t convert those chances and that came back to bite us.”
Saints enjoyed 57% of possession and nearly 60% of the territory, making 145 more metres with ball in hand, and forced Sale into making 66 more tackles across the match.
A tackle success rate of nearly 92 per cent also suggested that both physically and defensively, the hard yards put in during the off-season are delivering on-field improvements.
“The lads were brilliant in how engaged they are in what we are trying to do,” added Dowson. “I thought we were very physical, I thought we were confrontational, I thought there were lots of aspects that were very positive.
A brutally physical battle in Salford, but we come up just short after a late rally in our Gallagher Prem opener.— Northampton Saints 😇 (@SaintsRugby) October 15, 2023
“I thought we were bang in that game for long periods of it. There’s a couple of things that let us down and we will obviously go and look at those and be better at those.”
Among the Saints players who caught the eye was George Hendy, who made only his third Premiership start on the occasion of his 21st birthday.
The fullback continued his strong Premiership Rugby Cup form, when he scored in each of Saints’ last three games, with an assured performance in the backfield and his 72 metres made with ball in hand was second only to teammate Ramm.
“I’ve been impressed by him all preseason,” added Dowson. “It was his birthday and it’s a shame we couldn’t get the win.
“He’s had that penny drop moment over the summer when he went from being an Academy player to a senior player. I think you saw his physical ability and also his confidence to go and do stuff for a young man.’’Phil Dowson
“I wasn’t surprised in any way that he would come out and do some of those things. Physically he’s very gifted but he's also very conscientious and he knows how he needs to play.”
Saints’ return to cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday 21 October for the visit of Bristol Bears, who kicked off their league campaign with a strong victory over Leicester Tigers on Friday night.
While Pat Lam’s side are likely to present a different challenge to Sale Sharks, Dowson isn’t expecting too much difference from his side’s approach.
“I hope not from our point of view in terms of our energy and our aggressiveness and our mentality,” he said. “But clearly, I want it to be a very different game from the point of view of the result.”