Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints: Tom Vickers' big match preview

Saints are the current Premiership Rugby Cup holders
Saints are the current Premiership Rugby Cup holders

Fixture: Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints

Competition: Premiership Rugby Cup (pool game one)

Venue: AJ Bell Stadium, Eccles

Date and kick-off time: Saturday, September 21, 2019, 3pm

Referee: Andrew Jackson

Sale Sharks: Sale Sharks: Hammersley; Solomona, S James, Van Rensburg, Ashton; R du Preez, Warr; Harrison, Webber, Cooper-Woolley; Beaumont (c), Phillips; Jean-Luc du Preez, B Curry, D du Preez.
Replacements: van der Merwe, Rodd, John, Evans, Postlethwaite, Papier, L James, McGuigan

Saints: Freeman; Sleightholme, Dingwall, Bird-Tulloch, Olowofela; Grayson, Tupai; B Franks, van Vuuren, Hill; Coles, Bean; Wood, Harrison (c), Eadie.
Replacements: Fish, Davis, Painter, Onojaife, Uru, Taylor, Mathews, Strachan.

Players missing for Saints: Andy Symons (knee), Harry Mallinder (knee), Dylan Hartley (knee), Alex Mitchell (knee), Reece Marshall (hamstring), Mikey Haywood (knee), Jamie Gibson (shoulder), Heinz Brüssow (ankle), Paddy Ryan (knee), Piers Francis (RWC), Courtney Lawes (RWC), Lewis Ludlam (RWC), Ahsee Tuala (RWC), Api Ratuniyarawa (RWC), Dan Biggar (RWC) and Cobus Reinach (RWC).

Television coverage: None

Weather forecast: Mostly sunny, 23 degrees

Most recent meeting: Saturday, February 16, 2019: Saints 67 Sale Sharks 17 (Gallagher Premiership)

Tom's preview: The start of a new season is always a good time to not only look ahead, but also to reflect.

And when you assess just how far Saints have come during the past year, it can only bring satisfaction to supporters of the black, green and gold.

Because prior to the start of the 2018/19 campaign, it appeared then new boss Chris Boyd had a gargantuan task on his hands.

He took over a club that had been in freefall since topping the Premiership regular-season table in 2015.

After years of building towards glory under successful boss Jim Mallinder, Saints had slipped into reverse.

They finished fifth, seventh and then ninth in a decline that eventually resulted in Mallinder's departure in December 2017.

Saints identified Boyd as the man they wanted to arrest the slump, and after a turbulent end to the 2017/18 season, the Kiwi boss arrived and got to work.

And what he has achieved since has been nothing short of exceptional.

Saints finished fourth in the Premiership last season, reached the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup and won the Premiership Rugby Cup.

That final triumph against Saracens on home soil provided Saints with their first silverware since the sensational double-winning season of 2013/14.

And with the success built on the abilities of the club's talented young players, it showed just how much potential there was in a squad that seemed to lack it for so long.

Prodigious talents were given belief, with Boyd dripfeeding them in and watching them develop as his new style took shape.

And as they shone, the feelgood factor finally started to return to Franklin's Gardens, where the appetite for rugby had really been waning.

But it is not just the work on the pitch that has helped to put smiles back on faces at Saints.

Chief executive Mark Darbon has overseen myriad changes in approach and structure, and the fact Saints have used some of the new Premiership investment from CVC to improve their matchday experience speaks volumes.

While some clubs will undoubtedly focus on using the cash injection to improve on-pitch performance, Saints have recognised the value of keeping those who pay to watch the team happy.

They have spent money on improving the fans' village at Franklin's Gardens, they have paid out to improve the home dressing room and invested in new ideas such as the Tunnel Club, which gives supporters who can and will pay the money a chance to see their heroes up close before the head out onto the pitch.

Put simply, the changes at Saints have been nothing but positive.

They have invested in their commercial team, giving fans a better knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes.

And even their new kits are something to savour!

But even though so much has already been done, there appears to be no desire to slow down the progression.

Saints will know they must now strike while the iron is hot, working to keep improving attendances to provide them with the ability they need to sustain their development.

And nothing is more important to that than performances on the field of play.

That is where the greatest challenge will lie this season, especially with the extra demands the return to the Champions Cup will bring.

One look at the schedule shows just how brutal the coming months will be.

Once the Premiership Rugby Cup block - which contains four consecutive matches to kick off the season - is over, the Premiership kicks in.

And from then on, there will be no respite, no chance to rest and rotate.

Saints had the benefit of that last season as they were able to prioritise the Premiership while still progressing in Europe and the cup.

But with Leinster, Lyon and Benetton lying in wait on the continent this season, Saints will not have a chance to take their foot off the gas.

And if results do start to slip, the belief that has been instilled in this swaggering squad will truly be put to the test.

In truth, if Saints fail to finish in the top four this season, it won't be the end of the world, especially if they give a good account of themselves in Europe.

The minimum must again be a top-six spot, but have no doubt that the players and coaches are aiming much higher.

After a superb finish to last season, many members of the squad have already set their sights on the top two in England.

They believe they can mix it with Saracens and Exeter, who were so far clear last season.

Whether that comes to fruition, time will tell.

But what is not in doubt is that Saints are in such rude health when you compare the club to the one Darbon and Boyd inherited.

Fans will have looked around the Premiership a year ago and envied some of the work that was being done elsewhere.

But now they can be proud of what is happening in Northampton, while casting a glimpse at other clubs who do not seem to be on such secure footing.

The likes of Gloucester and Sale seem set for big seasons, along with Saracens and Exeter of course, but there is uncertainty around what teams such as Wasps, Bath, Leicester and Co can do.

Saints are also a bit of an unknown, but what they have done is to build from the ground up and they now have a team, behind the scenes and front of house, who supporters have real confidence in.

Whether that confidence continues to be rewarded when bigger hurdles come remains to be seen, but the direction the club is now going in is completely different to what it was a couple of years ago.

And thanks to that, the optimism ahead of the new season could not be much higher.

Let the games begin.

Tom's prediction: Sale have named a really strong team for this weekend's game, while Saints have opted to blend youth with experience as they continue to get minutes into all of their available players. It will be a really tough trip to the AJ Bell Stadium, where the home side will be expected to start the season well. Because of that, and because of the strength of side they have picked, I'm predicting a Sale victory. Sale 32 Saints 18