An inspired defensive showing, plus the accurate boot of James Grayson, helped Northampton Saints secure a narrow 17-14 win over Sale Sharks in Round 13 of the Gallagher Premiership.
A try from the returning Teimana Harrison to go with a Grayson penalty put the men in Black, Green and Gold into an 8-0 lead at the break in blustery conditions at Franklin’s Gardens.
Second-half maul scores from Jean-Luc du Preez and Lood de Jager kept Sale in touch, but Grayson responded by powering over a pair of long-range penalties that kept Saints’ noses in front.
With Sale pressuring from the off, five early penalties allowed Sale to enter the 22 – the hosts were also placed on a warning by referee Matthew Carley. Harrison’s first intervention upon his return was a breakdown turnover to release the pressure valve.
However, another offside penalty against Northampton allowed Sam James to kick to the corner. The repeated infringements resulted in Ollie Sleightholme being yellow carded in the tenth minute.
Sharks immediately looked to make their extra man count as they set up a rolling maul, only for superb defence from the Saints pack to hold the ball up.
Off the back of a scrum in the 18th-minute, it was Sale’s turn to get pinged for offside, and Grayson’s kick to just inside the 22 allowed for a first attacking opportunity.
Tommy Freeman burst through the gap after Reece Marshall hit his man at the back of the lineout. The wing was illegally tackled, but Harrison burrowed over the whitewash one phase later – Grayson’s conversion just shaved the right post to keep the score at 5-0.
Sleightholme soon returned to the field, but it was Freeman on the other wing who was in the thick of the action as his offload out the back of the hand released Tom James. The scrum-half was unlucky not to get on the end of his own grubber-kick as it trickled into touch on the five-metre line.
A Lood de Jager offload released MacGinty for a break that looked certain to result in a score, but Fraser Dingwall intercepted brilliantly before Freeman ran the ball clear.
Shortly after, Sam James went straight off his feet after Dingwall continued his good defensive work with a big shot on Arron Reed. Grayson extended the lead off the tee to 8-0 – which is how it remained at the interval.
Sale started quickly after the break as James’ attempted clearance was charged down. Jono Ross recovered possession in a dangerous position inside the 22, but Tom Wood held up Akker van der Merwe in a maul. A penalty at the resulting scrum allowed Grayson to clear.
Further Sale ill-discipline allowed Grayson to add to the lead. After Tom Wood was taken out at the lineout, backchat from the visitors led to referee Carley marching the penalty forward into kicking range. It was still a long way out, 15m in from touch and just inside the Sale half, but Grayson’s strike was a beauty.
On the 50-minute mark, Lewis Ludlam suffered a nasty head knock that ended his day. After a lengthy delay where he received treatment, MacGinty had a chance to kick his side’s first points, only to push his effort wide.
Grayson then superbly punished a scrum infringement to open up a 14-0 lead – his second long-range effort of the day.
However it was a driving maul from a lineout that finally cracked the Northampton defensive line, Jean-Luc du Preez getting on the end of a powerful collective effort. MacGinty made up for his earlier miss to leave the score at 14-7.
The penalty tit-for-tat continued when a dangerous tackle from van der Merwe offered Grayson another opportunity. From a much easier angle than his previous efforts, he pushed the hosts out to a ten-point lead heading into the final quarter.
Sale responded with another driving maul close to the line, but this one Saints managed to hold up. Advantage was being played, and from the following lineout, the visitors did maul over at the second attempt – de Jager coming up with the score which MacGinty again converted.
Now playing with all the momentum, Sale kept pressing. JJ Tonks ended one attack when securing a breakdown penalty, while MacGinty nearly linked up with Byron McGuigan on a dangerous cross kick.
A frantic kicking display ensued with the clock ticking down. Saints got the better of the aerial battle as James pinned Sale with a touch finder deep into their 22. Curtis Langdon missed his jumper over the top, allowing Mikey Haywood to pounce on the ball with less than two minutes remaining.
Sale did secure a penalty to set up one last attack, but after going through countless phases, a spill in the tackle secured the result that keeps Saints in touch with the top four.