Sale Sharks 20 Northampton Saints 7 - Tom Vickers’ view and player ratings
This was most certainly not the Saints side supporters have come to know and love during the past couple of seasons.
In fact, at the AJ Bell Stadium on Saturday, Jim Mallinder’s men were almost unrecognisable from the team that had won 15 of their previous 18 games in the current campaign.
Firstly, it is only fair to point out that this was an unfamilar performance from an unfamiliar pack.
Sam Dickinson and Calum Clark, both of whom were carded on an afternoon of yellow peril, were makeshift locks.
Ben Nutley, who had not started since the win at London Welsh at the end of November, was thrown in on the flank.
And Saints were desperately lacking the brute force offered by ‘Bruise Brothers’ Courtney Lawes and Samu Manoa, along with the ever-cool head of Christian Day.
On the kind of day windmills were designed for, Saints needed those men to rule the skies.
Instead, they were caught short in the set piece, with the creaking lineout a constant source of frustration.
And Sale, rested and refreshed after eight changes were made to the team which was walloped at Wasps on the previous weekend, took full advantage.
The home side produced a performance so dominant that you thought the teams had entered the wrong dressing rooms, donning the opposition’s kit before the game.
But, no, Sale really were the team in blue and white and, more shockingly, the current champions really were the men in lime.
The Sharks drowned Saints during a first half display that beggared belief.
Mallinder’s men spent what must have been close to 35 minutes penned in their own half, playing against the wind and a home team determined to defend their territory.
It was a deluge of pressure, much like Saints have subjected sides to at Franklin’s Gardens this season.
But this time they were on the other end of it.
And this time, unlike a couple of weeks ago at Twickenham, when they beat Harlequins with around 25 per cent possession, they were punished.
There is a feeling this has been coming.
That Saints had been riding their luck during the latter part of a seven-match winning streak.
The coaches and players admitted that their defending had to be better if they were to survive at the AJ Bell Stadium.
And although it was, marginally, the sheer weight of pressure put on them ensured Sale would eventually break through.
A 13-0 half-time lead was added to in the second half before Teimana Harrison wrestled his way over to grab a consolation score for a Saints side struggling to see the positives.
Quite simply, this was one of those days you write off as quickly as possible.
You allow it to motivate you for the following weekend, but dwelling on it would be dangerous.
Saints know they have more stern tests to come: crucial Champions Cup clashes lie in wait on successive weekends.
Just as it was last March, defeat at Sale must be a salutary experience.
On that occasion, Saints were described as ‘knackered’ by Sale boss Steve Diamond and said to lack cohesion by Mallinder.
But they bounced back and went on to win two trophies.
Now they will be desperate to use the Sharks shock as a catalyst once more.
Losing is an unfamiliar experience for Saints.
And they will want to make sure it stays that way in the coming weeks.
How they rated...
It was always going to be a tough day for full-backs with the wind whistling around the AJ Bell Stadium, and this was not a game to remember for the Saints No.15... 5
Made a couple of key interventions, but had little possession and was unable to make any that he did get count... 6
Tried to use his physicality to get Saints on the front foot, but it was in vain as Sale bossed the game for long spells... 6
A tough afternoon on his return to Sale as not much stuck and he was guilty of giving up possession on more than one occasion... 5
Tried to make something happen with a couple of big carries, but Sale were resolute and it was to be a frustrating 80 minutes... 6
This had been billed as the battle of the two 10s, with Danny Cipriani in the opposition ranks, but in truth it came down to the packs and Saints’ were well beaten up front... 5
Is shouldering the Saints scrum-half role with Kahn Fotuali’i out and there was little he could do as he had no possession to work with... 5
Made his first start since September, but this was not one to enjoy as Sale bullied Saints up front... 5
Had a torrid time in the lineout with most of Saints’ regular go-to guys in the set piece missing... 5
Was one of a number of players guilty of giving away cheap penalties and was unable to impose himself at scrum time as he so often does... 5
Made a rash decision to tackle a man without the ball, but it was a sign of the frustration that had built up in the Saints camp and he did his best to make amends... 5
Like Dickinson, he fell foul of the referee’s book, and the sin-binning, although perhaps a bit harsh, was to cost Saints... 5
Skippered Saints on the day and was left desperately disappointed with his side’s defending and application... 5
Scored two tries on his previous visit to the AJ Bell Stadium, but this was a wholly more unsatisfactory experience... 5
Kept plugging away as he desperately tried to turn the tide, but the Sharks drowned Saints in a first-half deluge... 6
Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)
ALEX WALLER (for Corbisiero 58)
Not an easy game to come into, but Saints could only get better and he helped them make a slight improvement late on... 6
GARETH DENMAN (for Ma’afu 58)
Tried to help Saints swim against the Sharks tide and didn’t do too badly as they at least put up a bit of a fight late on... 6
TEIMANA HARRISON (for Nutley 58)
Probably the brightest point of a dreary afternoon as he came on and showed tenacity to wriggle over for a late try... 6
CHRON STAR MAN - Dan Braid (Sale Sharks)