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

George Furbank felt the force of Sale back in SeptemberGeorge Furbank felt the force of Sale back in September
George Furbank felt the force of Sale back in September
Fixture: Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints

Competition: Gallagher Premiership (round one)

Venue: AJ Bell Stadium

Date and kick-off time: Friday, November 20, 8pm

Live television coverage: BT Sport Extra 1

Weather: 11c, cloudy

Referee: Ian Tempest

Saints: Furbank; Tuala, Proctor, Francis, Collins; Grayson, Taylor; Waller (c), Fish, Hill; Moon, Ratuniyarawa; Isiekwe, Wood, Harrison.

Replacements: Marshall, Auterac, Franks, Ribbans, Tonks, Mitchell, Dingwall, Mallinder.

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Sale Sharks: L James; Solomona, S James, van Rensburg, Hammersley; MacGinty, de Klerk; Morozov, van der Merwe, Oosthuizen; Wiese, JL du Preez; Ross (c), B Curry, D du Preez.

Replacements: Langdon, Rodd, Cooper-Woolley, Phillips, Postlethwaite, Cliff, R du Preez, Yarde

Outs: Saints: Mikey Haywood (knee), Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (Achilles), Rory Hutchinson (ankle), Courtney Lawes (ankle), Ollie Sleightholme (ankle), Kayde Sylvester (Achilles).

Most recent meeting: Tuesday, September 29, 2020: Saints 14 Sale Sharks 34 (Gallagher Premiership)

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Tom's preview: If Saints supporters want to see what their side have been able to achieve during the extremely short close-season, they will get a good idea on Friday night.

That is because this new Gallagher Premiership campaign starts as the last one ended: with a match against Sale Sharks.

Yes, there was a forfeited game against Gloucester inbetween, but Sale would probably rather us not mention that one as they try to get away from the Covid-19 saga that ended theirs and Saints' 2019/20 campaign prematurely.

Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that the men wearing the new white away kit of Northampton this week will have a little added motivation.

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Piers Francis, in a candid interview, admitted as much this week, as it clearly still rankles with the centre that he contracted Covid after that Sale clash in September.

It saw him laid up in bed for five days and forced him to miss an England camp, with Lewis Ludlam suffering the same fate.

Saints couldn't field a team on the final day at Gloucester due to coming into close contact with a Sale squad that eventually registered a whopping 27 positive tests.

And however that happened, it is clear that the black, green and gold were not happy with how the puncturing of another club's bubble impacted on their own.

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But what Saints will be more worried about now is how events unfold at the AJ Bell Stadium on Friday night.

They were shoved around at times by Sale in September, eventually falling to a 34-14 defeat against a typically powerful side.

Saints couldn't move the opposition's big men around enough and produced some costly errors that saw them suffer a sizeable defeat.

It was the 13th loss in 14 matches, and Saints go into this game shorn of the winning feeling they had become so accustomed to by the middle of January.

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In fact, the last time Saints went to the AJ Bell Stadium - in December 2019 - they were top of the table.

Things have unravelled badly since then, with individual errors, set-piece struggles on opposition ball, poor defending and disappointing breakdown work all contributing to a sorry recent record.

Sale don't have such issues in those departments and you can bet they will be ready to pounce on any Saints problems this week.

But although the turnaround between seasons has been shorter than ever, Saints simply have to find a way of sweeping the events of the second half of the last campaign under the carpet.

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They need to go in with clear minds, even if the bodies aren't as fresh as they would like.

Because this Saints side plays best when they have freedom of thought and freedom of movement.

Whether they can achieve that under the red-hot pressure created at the typically chilly AJ Bell Stadium, it remains to be seen.

Opening-night fixtures don't come much tougher than this, at a ground where Saints have lost on their past four Premiership visits.

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But perhaps with less expected of them, Saints can lift some of the burden from their shoulders.

This club has made a history of revelling in the role of underdogs.

And Saints will certainly be that this week.

Tom's prediction: Saints have been able to select a good side for this clash, but Sale look formidable once again, and the AJ Bell Stadium is such a tough place to go. You'd have to think the Sharks will bite Saints again here. Sale Sharks 30 Saints 18.

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