Brilliant Saints fightback stuns Sale Sharks
JJ Hanrahan's first try for Saints capped a superb turnaround as Jim Mallinder's men claimed a bonus-point 26-11 win against Sale Sharks at Franklin's Gardens.
Northampton had been 11-0 down after a sluggish start, but they fought back well to score four tries and earn a maximum haul.
Hanrahan’s weaving effort put the icing on the cake as he added to earlier scores from the impressive Mike Haywood, Ken Pisi and Tom Collins.
Saints scored two of their tries while lock Bryn Evans, who got Sale’s only try of the afternoon, was in the sin bin.
The away side had been helped by Saints’ concession of a string of penalties during the first period, but they sharpened up after the break to earn a vital victory.
It is a triumph that puts them fourth, one point ahead of Leicester Tigers, who were beaten at Wasps earlier on Saturday afternoon.
Saints had gone into the clash with Sale, who had lost only once in 2016, on the back of four wins from their past five games.
But the hosts were hit with a blow as Luther Burrell was ruled out, giving Harry Mallinder the chance to start at inside centre.
Meanwhile, Sale made a massive six personnel changes to their announced line-up, with former Saints favourite Brian Mujati lining up in a whole new front row.
The visitors had the chance to go ahead on 10 minutes as referee JP Doyle, who had missed a blatant obstruction in the build-up, awarded a penalty.
But Danny Cipriani fluffed the effort horribly, prompting relieved, and surprised, cheers from the home fans.
It was only a temporary reprieve though as Sale got numbers on the left and Evans ran in for the score, just managing to stay in play as he dived over.
Cipriani missed badly again from the tee, but Saints simply hadn’t got going and the fly-half finally succeeded with his third kick, landing a penalty from in front of the posts.
Saints were really struggling to get the ball and they were leaking penalties in their own half at an alarming rate.
Tom Arscott took over kicking duties from Cipriani to land one from the 10-metre line, giving the Sharks an 11-0 lead with 11 minutes to go before the break.
The penalty count against Saints was becoming remarkable, with an infringement spotted at almost every turn.
But Saints finally saw something go their way three minutes before the break as a brilliant break from Mallinder wreaked havoc in the away defence and Evans was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on.
The penalty was kicked to the corner and from the lineout, hooker Haywood used a dominant drive to dot down.
Stephen Myler landed the conversion from the touchline with aplomb, cutting the gap to four points at half-time.
And Saints were soon in front after the interval, continuing to make the most of Evans being in the bin as good work from Christian Day helped tee up Ken Pisi for the score.
Myler converted again to make it 14-11 as Evans returned to the field following a costly period out of the action.
Sale were suddenly falling apart and after James Craig burgled the ball at a ruck, Lee Dickson sprinted clear before offloading brilliantly to Collins, who had an easy run to the line.
Myler added the extras and there was a real atmosphere starting to build for the first time, with the fans getting into the game after the quickfire second-half scores.
Saints were flying, but they soon saw a spanner thrown in the works as George Pisi was sin-binned for a trip off the ball.
Some home fans chanted “you don’t know what you’re doing” at referee Doyle as their frustation with the official reached its peak.
Saints freshened things up by throwing Kahn Fotuali’i into the action, with the Samoan getting his first game time since pulling his hamstring in the New Year’s Day win against Exeter Chiefs.
And despite being down to 14 men, it was still the home team applying all of the pressure, with Sale having to be at their best to prevent the bonus-point score.
Saints were not getting the bounce of the ball, literally, as Mallinder’s superb grubber just skipped out of reach for Collins, who would have had an easy score had it sat nicely.
Time was running out for the home side to grab the bonus point, but that was exactly what they did with less than two minutes remaining.
The indefatigable Tom Wood pushed Sale back with yet another forward surge and Hanrahan picked up, weaved his way through and stretching out an arm to earn the maximum haul.
The Irishman missed the conversion with a drop-kick attempt, but it didn’t matter as Saints celebrated another important victory.
Saints: Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, Mallinder, Collins (Tuala 78); Myler (Hanrahan 65), Dickson (c) (Fotuali’i 55); E Waller (A Waller 52), Haywood (Marshall 65), Hill (Denman 65); Craig, Day (Matfield 64); Gibson (Fisher 64), Wood, Harrison.
Sale Sharks: Arscott (Mitchell 71); Addison (Ford 65), James, Tuitupou (Jennings 55), Edwards; Cipriani, Stringer; Lewis-Roberts (Harrison 52), Briggs (Taylor 47), Mujati; Evans, Mills (Lund 65); Neild (Seymour 55), TJ Ioane, Easter.
Referee: JP Doyle