Two tries from Ahsee Tuala and Alex Mitchell were not enough to stop Northampton Saints slipping to defeat against Gallagher Premiership play-off hopefuls Sale Sharks in the final home clash of the 2019/20 season at Franklin’s Gardens.
An ankle injury to Courtney Lawes, who limped off after eight minutes, compounded a difficult night as the men in Black Green and Gold’s frustrating run of results continued.
With Champions Cup places still up for grabs, the loss means Saints failed to close the gap on sixth-placed Harlequins with just one round of the league campaign left to play.
Director of Rugby, Chris Boyd, had made four changes to the side that went down to Exeter Chiefs in last week’s Champions Cup quarter-final, with Mitchell, Sam Matavesi, Shaun Adendorff and Taqele Naiyaravoro all being added to the starting XV – with Rory Hutchinson a late withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the Sharks arrived at the Gardens bolstered by England duo Manu Tuilagi and Tom Curry, and World Cup-winning South Africa scrum-half, Faf de Klerk.
Steve Diamond's side opened their account after just five minutes having diligently worked their way up the pitch, before eventually catching Saints short out wide to score through fullback Luke James.
Sale’s second came after a sustained period of pressure deep in Saints’ 22, with referee Wayne Barnes awarding a penalty try after three collapsed lineout drives, which also resulted in a yellow card for lock Api Ratuniyarawa.
With Lawes already off the field, Nick Isiekwe won a couple of crucial lineout turnovers, and despite being down to 14 men, the home side struck back three minutes later with a move straight from the training ground.
A lineout on Sharks’ 22 saw scrum-half Mitchell feed Fraser Dingwall in the centre who slipped a cute pass to Tuala, who popped up out of the shadows to cut open the visitors’ defence and touch down. Fly-half Dan Biggar converted to bring the score back to within five points.
But it didn’t take long for Sale to reassert their dominance as James went over for his second of the match shortly after. Biggar unfortunately saw the fullback’s grubber slip through his grip, and the fullback regathered possession to increase Sharks’ lead to ten points.
Saints continued to rally and thought they had scored their second when Adendorff dotted down from a driving maul, only for the TMO to confirm the No.8’s foot had gone into touch.
A score would have brought the home side back into contention, but when Sharks wing Simon Hammersley dived in for Sale’s fourth on the stroke of half-time to make it 22-7, it felt like Saints had a mountain to climb.
After the break, Saints continued to pressurise the Sale defence, but couldn’t convert the possession into points.
There was a glimmer of hope when Mitchell – who kicked superbly all evening - scrambled over after Biggar had taken a quick-tap penalty. The fly-half converted to move the home side back within eight points on the hour mark, but soon after had to leave the field with a dead leg.
Saints had to try to force the issue, and after a brilliant burst from deep from Tuala, the backline looked to play out but a loose ball went into touch – allowing Sharks to strike the killer blow.
From the lineout, De Klerk smuggled the ball to Rohan Janse van Rensburg who juggled but managed to hold on and touch down and move the result beyond doubt.
There was still time for Valery Morozov to score one more for Sale with three minutes remaining, as the replacement hooker’s pick-and-go after a well-set rolling maul saw him across the whitewash.
Chris Boyd’s side will now look to end the season on a high note with a visit to mid-table Gloucester on Sunday afternoon.