Sale Sharks 18 Northampton Saints 15: Tom Vickers' review and player ratings
There has rarely been much pride in defeat for Saints this season.
When losses have come, they have predominantly come in comprehensive fashion.
But at the AJ Bell Stadium on Saturday evening, the eventual three-point gap between the two sides summed up the nip and tuck nature of this Aviva Premiership meeting.
Saints could take positives from their improved defence and steadier scrum.
But they could not take the four points they so desperately craved.
And the fact they suffered their fourth successive league defeat, and seventh in their past eight matches in all competitions, meant the display was significantly tainted.
Rather than a feeling of satisfaction, regret was the overwhelming emotion.
Because Saints could, and perhaps, should have taken far more from this match.
As Jim Mallinder said after the game, this was 'night and day' when compared to the hugely disappointing display at Sixways seven days earlier.
But there was still a couple of similarities to that afternoon at Worcester, where Saints were beaten 30-15.
One was the fact that they again tasted defeat.
And another was that their discipline was again called into question.
Saints were struck by three sin-binnings at Sale, with Michael Paterson, Jamal Ford-Robinson and Ben Foden seeing yellow.
It is very rare that a team can cope for almost 30 minutes a man short - at one point Saints were two men down - and so it proved.
Sale made the most of their advantages when they came, scoring twice when Saints were a man down.
And only some valiant defending prevented further scores.
There were some question marks over the officiating, with the sin-binning of Foden particularly debatable.
When slowed down during the relentless replays on the big screen, the incident did not look good.
But when viewed in real time, it appeared Foden was merely trying to wrap to make a tackle rather than deliberately knocking the ball forward.
And there were a few other moments that went against Saints in the match, as highlighted by Mallinder in his post-match interview.
Sale landed a penalty soon after Foden left the field, and that kick, from Will Cliff, ultimately proved to be the winner.
Saints could have levelled the scores had they opted to kick for goal three minutes from time.
And their decision to turn down that penalty chance, which was a good one, and instead go for the corner has attracted some criticism.
But they could easily have slotted the kick and then found themselves penned in by Sale, desperately clinging on to the extra point they would have got from the draw.
Instead, they opted to be brave. To back themselves in the closing moments.
And that deserves some praise, especially considering recent form.
It has to be a good thing that there is still that sort of confidence in the squad.
The only disappointment was that they failed to execute two good positions late on.
When Saints were winning things a few years ago, they would always back themselves.
And they should not change that approach just because things have not been going well this season.
Had they claimed the four points, no one could have complained.
But as it is, it is another disappointing result in a season that has failed to bring much joy so far.
The successes of September seem far away right now, with the past two months yielding just a single win in eight attempts.
Saints could have won at Gloucester and Sale, but their composure let them down late on.
And it is a familiar tale of seeking to get back on track in the week to come.
The gap between Mallinder's men and the top four is not yet an ocean.
But it will be if they can't find a way to make December markedly more enjoyable than October and November.
How they rated...
Showed some flashes of his ability once again and didn't do much wrong on a difficult day for full-backs... 6
JUAN PABLO ESTELLES
Likes to hold onto the ball and take the game to the opposition, and he took the fight to Sale, including in defence, where he didn't shy away from squaring up to some big players... 6
Managed to find a couple of gaps in the Sale defence to help Saints gain ground and this was a decent showing... 6
Put himself about well, making some important tackles and staking his claim for a run in the first team... 6
Showed good physicality in the tackle and stopped Denny Solomona in his tracks on a couple of occasions, but was unfortunate to be given a yellow card... 6
A steady showing from the young fly-half, who was making his first Premiership start and didn't look out of place... 6
Worked his socks off during the first half, closing Sale down quickly and ultimately earning a try after blocking a clearance kick from James O'Connor... 7
Was a picture of desire throughout, holding his own in the scrum and working so hard in open play, as emphasised by a key tackle on Marland Yarde... 7
Etched his name on the scoresheet once again and was part of a much better forwards display, full of energy... 7
Was forced to sit out 10 minutes of the match after the penalties racked up against Saints, but he did little else wrong... 6
Another player who was hit by a sin-binning, but this was a decent showing against his former club... 6
Was skippering the side once again and led the team well enough, helping to keep the youngsters composed, making some good contributions... 6
TOM WOOD - CHRON STAR MAN
An all-action display from the flanker, who carried hard, made a couple of eye-catching breaks and got through plenty of graft in defence... 7
Was a big presence in a hard-working Saints back row as he battled in torrid conditions... 7
Fought for every ball and every metre as he desperately tried to show the physicality the coaches have been demanding... 7