Tom Vickers' Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints preview
Fixture: Sale Sharks v Northampton Saints (Aviva Premiership - round 17)
Date and kick-off time: Friday, March 3, 2017, 8.15pm
Venue: AJ Bell Stadium, Salford
Sale Sharks: Haley; Solomona, Leota, Jennings, Charnley; James, Phillips; Harrison, Webber, Aulika; Evans, Mills; Neild, Lund, Beaumont (c).
Replacements: T Curry, Flynn, Longbottom, Nott, B Curry, Stringer, MacGinty, McGuigan.
Saints: Tuala; K Pisi, Tuitavake, Mallinder, Foden (c); Myler, Groom; A Waller, Haywood, Brookes; Paterson, Craig; Gibson, Clark, Harrison.
Replacements: Clare, E Waller, Hill, Ratuniyarawa, Dickinson, Dickson, Estelles, Wilson.
Outs: Saints: Christian Day, Jamie Elliott (shoulder), JJ Hanrahan (hand), Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Louis Picamoles, George North (international duty)
Referee: Tom Foley
Most recent meeting: Friday, December 23, 2016: Saints 24 Sale Sharks 5 (Aviva Premiership)
Tom’s preview: It’s a fixture that’s about as glamorous as going for dinner at a greasy spoon.
And the during and after-effects are usually as difficult to digest for Saints.
Sale away on a Friday night, with an 8.15pm kick-off, looks particularly unappetising for a team who have won just three of their eight Aviva Premiership away games this season.
And it’s even more unappealing when you consider Saints have not won at the AJ Bell Stadium in the league since November, 2012, when a blanket of fog blighted the encounter.
Jim Mallinder’s men did manage to win at Sale in an Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final on their way to the double in 2014, but the sides were much-changed that night.
And now Saints must show that their best (minus the Six Nations stars) can see off what the Sharks have to offer.
As Six Nations fixtures go, this is one that Saints would loved to have side-stepped.
Newcastle Falcons, who Mallinder’s men were well beaten by recently, and Sale are two of the toughest teams to travel to while international players are away.
And even when they are back, it can be just as tough. Just as the Saints team of March 22, 2014 discovered.
On that day, Saints welcomed back their Six Nations players, who were later described as looking ‘knackered’ by Sale boss Steve Diamond, who steered his team to a 19-6 success.
So it is not all about bringing back the big guns, but there is no doubt the presence of the likes of Louis Picamoles, Tom Wood and George North would have been welcome.
Saints will have to show that they can win on the road without those men.
They so nearly did at Bath a few weeks back and they looked like they might when heading in at half-time 24-15 up at Newcastle on the following weekend.
But Saints couldn’t get over the line in either clash.
They did manage to against a lacklustre Worcester Warriors team last weekend, and with the games getting progressively tougher from now on, Saints must back that win up with another victory.
They can take heart from the display against Sale at Franklin’s Gardens in December, when the Sharks were toothless rather than ruthless in a 24-5 defeat.
Saints bossed that game, took their chances when they came and walked away with an easy win.
How a repeat would be welcomed this week.
But Sale are a much more formidable force at home, as they showed when shocking Wasps a couple of weeks ago.
And Saints will have to produce something special if they are to end their Salford woe this week.
Tom’s prediction: Sale Sharks 25 Saints 20