Northampton Saints were edged out 32-23 by Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell Stadium in their opening Gallagher Premiership clash of the 2020/21 season.
Club co-captain Alex Waller made his long-awaited injury return for the visitors, who scored twice either side of half-time through Tom Collins and Piers Francis, in a display which showed plenty of promise against one of this season’s title contenders.
But ultimately it was a slow start in the opening quarter that cost Chris Boyd’s side on the day the Kiwi Director of Rugby signed a contract extension at Franklin’s Gardens, with Saints going down 17-0 early on and swimming against the tide from there.
The men in Black, Green and Gold were desperate to begin well on a chilly Manchester evening, but it was the hosts who shot out of the traps as AJ MacGinty landed a second-minute penalty from 35 metres out after Teimana Harrison was deemed to have gone off his feet by referee Ian Tempest.
And it was 10-0 not long after with Ben Curry finding Akker Van der Merwe on the inside from a lineout, and the timing of the run and the pass allowed the hooker to bulldoze his way to the try-line.
George Furbank took a nasty head knock and had to be replaced in the eighth minute by Harry Mallinder, but from there Northampton began to get a foothold in the game with some strong scrummaging and carries from second-row duo Api Ratuniyarawa and Alex Moon.
But after Sale recovered a box kick over the top, Van der Merwe was in the thick of the action once again and somehow flung an offload to Dan du Preez, who touched down – with MacGinty adding the routine conversion from in front of the posts.
At 17-0 the match could very quickly have spiralled out of control for Saints, but just five minutes later after a couple of quick penalties, they got a foothold in the game as an unlikely man in wing Collins popped up at the back of a rolling maul to score.
Grayson struck a fine conversion from the touchline, but just pushed another effort from the tee wide before half-time as Jono Ross was penalised for a shoulder into Mallinder off the ball.
Northampton got the perfect start to the second half despite the injured Harrison being replaced by JJ Tonks, as Collins charged down a kick, and Sharks infringed as the visitors looked to drive – Grayson wasted no time getting the tee on and reducing the deficit to 17-10.
However, no sooner had Saints closed the gap, Sale scored again after MacGinty floated a well-judged pass towards the onrushing Simon Hammersley, who spun past a tackle to score in the corner.
From here however Saints really stepped up the tempo and pressure, winning penalty after penalty as the Sharks went off their feet and in at the side over and over again – and Boyd unleashed the likes of Alex Mitchell, Owen Franks, David Ribbans and Reece Marshall from the bench looking to affect the game.
Finally, just before the hour mark, Grayson pointed to the posts again to make it 22-13 – but once again they were immediately pegged back further with MacGinty finding a gap out of nowhere, and throwing a dummy towards Van der Merwe before crossing the whitewash and converting his own try.
After yet another penalty conceded by the hosts, Ross finally saw yellow for going offside, and moments later Francis gave Saints some hope after Mitchell made a dart and offloaded.
Grayson landed the conversion and after he took a knock five minutes later, up stepped Mallinder to bring the scores within a converted try with six minutes remaining with a sweetly-struck penalty, awarded following a gallop from Tonks up the right touchline.
Sharks went back to 15 men for the closing stages of the game and promptly won a decisive penalty on the 22 to kill off the resurgent Saints; Rob Du Preez landed it to effectively end the contest, but while Northampton went in search of a score to earn themselves a losing-bonus point, they could not break down their hosts once more before the clock ticked into the red.
Next up for the men in Black, Green and Gold are Harlequins at Franklin’s Gardens next Saturday – Saints’ first home encounter of the new season.