Tom Vickers’ Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints player ratings and review

WARNING - Saints full-back Ben Foden had warned that other teams would attempt to emulate Exeter, and Sale did (Picture: Linda Dawson)
WARNING - Saints full-back Ben Foden had warned that other teams would attempt to emulate Exeter, and Sale did (Picture: Linda Dawson)
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There was a distracting sense of déjà vu when the final whistle blew at the AJ Bell Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

A palpable sense of regret filled the air as Saints trudged off the pitch to a chorus of cheers from the home fans.

It was an all too familiar scene, with memories of the LV= Cup defeat at Exeter six days earlier still fresh in the mind.

On that occasion, down at Sandy Park, the Chiefs supporters partied like it was 1999, saluting their team for slaying the Saints.

Exeter had got their noses ahead early on and never looked back, putting the squeeze on to secure the biggest result in their 143-year existence.

On Saturday, history repeated itself, as Saints suffered a similar fate against another phalanx of fired-up players, celebrating their most sizeable success of the season.

ON THE CHARGE - George North is determined to claim some silverware with Saints (Picture: Linda Dawson)

ON THE CHARGE - George North is determined to claim some silverware with Saints (Picture: Linda Dawson)

All the pre-match talk in the home camp had been about a great campaign, but one which had yet to encompass a win against one of the league’s top four.

That was recitified at Saints’ expense, but, just as at Exeter on the previous weekend, there was reason to feel it shouldn’t have reached such a disappointing denouement.

Saints dominated possession in an entirely one-sided second half, pouring forward in pursuit of a passage back into the game.

But, with a 13-point advantage secured during a clinical first-half showing, the Sharks stood their ground, plugging gaps and routinely slowing down Saints ball.

In his pre-match interview, full-back Ben Foden admitted other sides may have seen Exeter as an example. They may have seen how the Chiefs played against Saints and copied it.

And that may well have been the case for Sale, as they, like the Chiefs, showed a ruthless streak to take their chances before clinging on for dear life.

They, like the Chiefs, pushed Saints over with an inexorable maul and they, like the Chiefs, displayed a razor-sharp counter-attacking game.

They, like the Chiefs, poured everything they had into the game, upping the ante in the aggression stakes and giving Jim Mallinder’s men a mountain to climb.

This Saints team is comfortable in so many situations, as shown by their recent incredible 13-match winning streak, but recovering from a sizeable deficit isn’t always one of them.

Sometimes panic sets in, as it did against Leinster at Franklin’s Gardens in December, with the team forcing things rather than sticking to their systems.

The lack of a plan B has also been discussed and, perhaps, Saints are occasionally guilty of trucking it up the middle a bit too often.

But what must be remembered is that their style has worked far more often than not this season. The record still reads 23 wins from 29 games, remember.

There is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. Subtle adjustments should be the order of the day, not wholesale panic and knee-jerk reactions.

And the team have to be given time to get to know each other again.

Combinations are so important and, during the past couple of weeks, with key players returning, there has been plenty of chopping and changing.

Regular fly-half and the man expected to set the tone, Stephen Myler, has been missing, though it has to be said his deputies have done an admirable job.

Then there are the Six Nations stars, who Sale boss Steve Diamond claimed were overcome by lassitude on Saturday.

You could say Saints shouldn’t have thrown all of them back into the mix straight away - “give them the weekend off,” some said - but they need to be reintegrated at some point.

If not at Sale, then when? Against Leicester on Saturday? That would hardly have been ideal, either.

And as Mallinder pointed out after the game, you simply have to pick the best players you can to win the game.

Leave out the likes of Luther Burrell, George North and Dylan Hartley, lose and questions will be asked.

Pick them, lose and questions will still be asked. Put simply, selecting a side is not an exact science.

Harlequins rested their England trio against Saracens, and got soundly beaten, leaving themselves with the toughest of tasks to make the play-offs.

They may be fresher for next week, but Quins may win and still be several points adrift of the top four.

Saints wanted to get another victory to retain the breathing space they had built up during an impressive first 16 league games.

They didn’t manage to do it, and they have held their hands up, as they did at Exeter.

But the time for accusations is over and a win against Leicester this Saturday will go a long way to banishing recollections of a frustrating couple of weeks.

How they rated...

BEN FODEN

Admitted he didn’t really get into the game at Exeter six days earlier, and this wasn’t dissimilar. Saints often turned to the forwards in slippery conditions... 6

JAMIE ELLIOTT

Tried to spring a couple of attacking surprises on Sale, but was quickly stopped in his tracks on another tough day for the wide men... 6

JAMES WILSON

Cut a frustrated figure as he was one of three players to make way early in the second half and was also sacrificed while Dylan Hartley was in the sin bin... 6

LUTHER BURRELL

Looked bright early on and did his best to get in the game, but the ball wasn’t quick enough for him to be able to find gaps in the Sale defence... 6

GEORGE NORTH

Did his best to make some of his trademark bursts, but was often stopped at source and had little chance to make an impact in Sale’s 22... 6

WILL HOOLEY

Looked confident from the off, kicked well from the tee and from hand and also did his best to create when he could. An impressive first Premiership start... 7

LEE DICKSON

Tried to inject some pace to proceedings early on, but Saints’ strong start was soon ruined by Sale’s resurgence and the scrum-half couldn’t get a foothold in the game... 6

ALEX WALLER

Showed plenty of appetite for the fight and had a good day in the scrum, too. Effort can’t be faulted... 7

DYLAN HARTLEY

The captain saw yellow towards the end of the first half and Saints missed him for the 10 minutes he was off the pitch. Did his best to make amends in the second half... 6

SALESI MA’AFU

Helped Saints get the edge in the scrum early on, with Sale put under a bit of pressure in that area, but the home side survived... 6

COURTNEY LAWES

Brought his successful England lineout form back to Saints, but his attempts to knock the Sale door down in open play passed without reward... 6

CHRISTIAN DAY

Wasn’t able to have the influence he would have liked against his former club, but work ethic not in doubt... 6

CALUM CLARK

Only spent 50 minutes on the pitch, as at Exeter, and wasn’t given a chance to dominate the breakdown as the home team suffocated Saints... 6

TOM WOOD

Has brought his beard back to Saints and put in a rugged performance as he desperately sought to smash through the Sale rearguard... 7

GJ VAN VELZE

Not able to get free and cause any damage as Sale managed to stop Saints’ maul just in time on a number of occasions... 6

Replacements (who played more than 20 minutes)

PHIL DOWSON (for Clark 49)

Added to the forward effort, but Saints would like to have given him more of a rest after a tiring few weeks... 6

KAHN FOTUALI’I (for Dickson 49)

Tried to spark the team into life, but it was a tough day for the creative players as Sale refused to give them any breathing space... 6

GEORGE PISI (for Wilson 49)

Showed his style with a few tidy spins and steps, but didn’t get the ball on the front foot as much as he would have liked... 6

TOM MERCEY (for Ma’afu 50)

Added a bit more energy up front, but whatever he and the rest of the forwards tried, they couldn’t break the door down... 6