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Match Report: Northampton Saints 21 – 17 Sale Sharks

Northampton Saints raised the roof of a sold-out cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens to finish 2023 with a thrilling late comeback victory to move top of the Gallagher Premiership table.

A sixth successive win did not seem on the cards at the break as Joe Carpenter’s try, converted by George Ford, gave last season’s runners-up a narrow lead.

Luke Cowan-Dickie and George Furbank traded tries early into the second period before Ford struck a dropgoal to open a two-score lead.

It didn’t deter Phil Dowson’s side who once more proved their ability to finish strongly with Alex Mitchell crossing before a penalty try settled the match.


The smoke from the fireworks that greeted Alex Coles leading Saints out on the occasion of his 100th appearance swiftly disappeared giving a strong indication as to the elements the home side would be facing attacking towards The cinch Stand.

Both teams had opportunities to score in the opening 15 minutes as Ford pushed a long-distance penalty wide before the hosts had two close-range rolling mauls after penalties were won at the scrum and breakdown. However, the deadlock remained unbroken as Sale disrupted a maul and Cowan-Dickie pounced on a tackled player to win a penalty under his own posts.

When another decision at scrum time went the way of Saints at the end of the first quarter, Fin Smith’s central penalty from 40 metres out dropped just short of the target with a strong headwind playing its part.

The battle of the boot continued with only fleeting moments of attack with ball in hand as debutant Burger Odendaal knocked-on when well placed before a delicate chip into the wide channel was skilfully pulled in by Tommy Freeman, only for his juggled offload to fall just behind the supporting run of Tom Pearson.

Two minutes before the interval, Smith kicked out on the full and then Sale secured their own kick from hand as Tom Roebuck leapt high. With penalty advantage in the 22, Sharks pulled the trigger with Ford putting Carpenter through a gap to cross, setting up a simple conversion attempt for his fly-half.


There was early excitement for the home supporters as Saints worked the ball right and left, both through the passing of Rory Hutchinson, only for Sale to maintain their clean sheet as Sleightholme was bundled into touch metres from the line.

Hopes of an early fightback were hit as a loose pass in midfield was compounded by Pearson being penalised for tackling a man without the ball. Ford’s kick into the 22 set the platform from which Cowan-Dickie muscled his way over. Ford added the extras.

Saints made their first two replacements with 30 minutes remaining as two-try hero from the Gloucester win before Christmas, Curtis Langdon, entered proceedings along with Alex Moon and both immediately contributed to help the pack win a scrum penalty – and with it Saints’ route back into the game.

With penalty advantage, Smith and Hutchinson combined on the drift for captain Furbank to arrive on an unstoppable angle into the left corner to land his fifth try of the season that Smith expertly converted to halve the deficit.

Approaching the hour mark, Courtney Lawes arrived into proceedings but was powerless to stop Ford landing a looping drop-goal against the run of play.

With 15 minutes remaining, Sleightholme slalomed through the defence to break into the 22. Patient and powerful play from the forwards pushed Sale back onto their goalline. Once more with penalty advantage, the men in Black, Green and Gold pounced as Mitchell sniped for his fifth try in eight games this term. Smith’s conversion cut the gap to three points.

Better was to come. Saints were awarded a penalty from a very kickable position in the 22 to level the scores. Furbank had other ideas as he tapped quickly and was tackled by a non-retreating player and held up over the line.

Asher Opoku-Fordjour was sin-binned and a penalty try awarded and Northampton were ahead for the first time. They survived a late scare before counter-attacking out of their 22 allowing Mitchell to kick into a rapturous Carlsberg Stand to send Northampton top of the table, where they will remain entering 2024 if Bath do not defeat Leicester Tigers on Sunday.


SAINTS:  15 Furbank (c), 14 Freeman, 13 Odendaal, 12 Hutchinson, 11 Sleightholme, 10 Smith, 9 Mitchell; 1 A.Waller, 2 Matavesi, 3 Davison, 4 Munga, 5 Coles, 6 Scott-Young, 7 Pearson, 8 Augustus
Replacements: 16 Langdon, 17 Haffar, 18 Hill, 19 Moon, 20 Lawes, 21 Graham, 22 Braley, 23 Litchfield

SHARKS: 15 Carpenter, 14 Roebuck, 13 S.James, 12 R.du Preez, 11 Reed, 10 Ford, 9 Warr; 1 Harrison, 2 Cowan-Dickie, 3 Schonert, 4 Wiese, 5 Hill, 6 van Rhyn, 7 B.Curry (c), 8 JL.du Preez
Replacements: 16 Taylor, 17 Onasanya, 18 Opoku-Fordjour, 19 Beaumont, 20 Dugdale, 21 Thomas, 22 Ma’asi-White, 23 Veainu

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