Tom Vickers’ Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints preview

While Sky Sports ramps up the Heineken Cup coverage this week, the tournament’s lesser sibling comes back to life in Salford on Thursday night.

Thursday, 3rd April 2014, 7:00 am
BIG CHANGES - Saints boss Jim Mallinder has made 12 changes from the team that lost to Leicester in the Premiership last weekend (picture: Linda Dawson)

Saints, who could be forgiven for casting envious glances towards Europe’s premier competition, go to Sale for a tie which both teams appear to need like a hole in the head.

With the Premiership the priority for both, the directors of rugby are shuffling their packs in a bid to ensure match fitness rather than burnout for the more important assaults ahead.

Saints make 12 changes from the team that lost to Leicester in the league last weekend, while Sale only name three of the men that beat Jim Mallinder’s side in the league less than two weeks ago.

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Because, like it or not, the Challenge Cup just doesn’t possess the allure of the Heineken Cup.

Saints will be judged on the Premiership this season, not Europe’s secondary tournament.

And Sale, thanks to their superb form of recent weeks, know that they too could be involved in the league shake-up come the end of the season.

And with the Challenge Cup final sandwiched by the Premiership semi-finals and final, it could be seen as an unwelcome distraction looming on the horizon.

It is almost just another fixture on the calendar. One to be fulfilled, rather than one to leave you feeling that way.

It is a sad situation, because European quarter-finals should be special. They should bring about a sense of anticipation.

But, by scheduling the game for a Thursday night on the back of an onerous Premiership weekend, the ERC are making a rod for their own back.

Let’s not blow it too far out of proportion, both teams would still love to be celebrating the silverware come the end of May.

And the players who take to the field will give everything they’ve got. But it will not be fatal to either side’s campaign should they bow out after putting up a fight.

Saints will do just that with the team they have selected, with a backline including Ben Foden, Ken Pisi, James Wilson and Lee Dickson not to be sniffed at.

The pack isn’t bad either, and there will be big opportunities for young players such as Tom Stephenson and Will Hooley once again.

But Saints simply had to get some rest into the legs of many of their frontline squad members and this is the time to do it.

They needed to do as others did during the LV= Cup semi-final and final weekends, which were coupled into eight days, and take some time off.

While teams like Sale and Leicester put their feet up, Saints got stuck into bruising encounters against Saracens and Exeter.

And it could be said the past few weeks have seen them pay a price for their success, with their accuracy and speed of thought just tailing off a little.

A win at Sale would help to bring back some momentum and feelgood factor, but it is what comes after Thursday night that remains most important.