Tom Vickers’ Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints preview

STRANGE FEELING - Saints lost for the first time since December 7 when they went down 15-8 to Exeter in the LV= Cup Final last weekend. They are aiming to bounce back with a win at Sale on Saturday (Picture: Linda Dawson)
STRANGE FEELING - Saints lost for the first time since December 7 when they went down 15-8 to Exeter in the LV= Cup Final last weekend. They are aiming to bounce back with a win at Sale on Saturday (Picture: Linda Dawson)

The league’s final furlong is upon Saints – and there are certainly a few significant hurdles to clear in the next few weeks.

Jim Mallinder’s men, who have won their past 11 games in the Aviva Premiership, are set for some more stern examinations of their title credentials.

So far, they have passed the majority of their tests with flying colours, losing just once all season, at Gloucester back in September.

But with games against Sale, Leicester, Saracens and Bath lying in wait amid a tricky six-match run-in, there is still plenty of work to do.

And bouncing back from last Sunday’s defeat to Exeter Chiefs in the LV= Cup final will require another sizeable dollop of the character that has typified this squad this season.

The defeat at Sandy Park was Saints’ first in any competition since December 7, with a remarkable run of 13 games having come and gone with happy endings at each of them.

Now though, the team will be asked to show the mettle they demonstrated after the humbling defeat to Leinster at Franklin’s Gardens.

The good news is that the cavalry have been called for and the Six Nations players are back to boost the bread and butter bid.

The Amlin Challenge Cup will provide a tasty side dish, but Saints know it will be their achievements in the Premiership that will define their season.

Top of the priority list is booking a home semi-final, and wins in the next two weeks would take them close to achieving that aim.

The players and management won’t look too far ahead, but if they can get the job done as soon as possible, it will make the end-of-season schedule slightly less punishing.

Players will need to be rested at some point, and two home games, against London Irish and Wasps, would allow that to happen, as long as Saints remain well clear of Tigers and Bath.

But nothing can be taken for granted this weekend, against a Sale side who were one of the better teams to visit the Gardens this season.

Although they eventually fell to a 33-14 defeat, their first half performance in particular was hugely spirited and there was plenty of class about them.

They have come a long way since last season, when Saints made their way into the Salford fog and surged into a 27-3 half-time lead before eventually emerging with a comfortable win.

You have to feel it will be much tougher this time round, but it could prove a good fixture to steel the team for the east midlands derby a week later.

And it will also lay down a marker for the European quarter-final back at the AJ Bell Stadium in a couple of weeks’ time.

Those games won’t be for the faint-hearted, and Saints know they will have to show stamina, style and strength if they are to keep their season on the right track.