Mitchell makes the difference for Sale

Click to follow
Northampton 9 Sale 22

Sale's jubilant players were unanimous in their verdict following their spirited and efficient dismantling of Northampton: they owed this Pilkington Cup quarter-final success, and their lofty fifth place in the First Division to one man, the player-coach, John Mitchell.

"We had a brilliant time under our previous coach, Paul Turner," Charles Vyvyan said, "but I think we've just moved on one more step now. With no disrespect to Paul, there are now far more decision makers in the team, rather than us having to rely on one man [Turner]."

Jim Mallinder, the captain, for whom a place in today's semi-final draw capped a marvellous week in which he was named in the preliminary British Lions party, added: "Our lines of running and handling improved drastically under Paul Turner, and he was a very difficult act to follow, but John has been awesome. He has given us that harder physical and mental edge and brought the team together. He has that ability to be one of the boys, yet also able to stand off and be the coach, the respected coach."

The man himself, who revealed that Sale are close to signing a lucrative deal which should secure their future, feels that his charges are still some way from the finished article. "We don't deserve recognition yet," he said. "We are still relatively young in First Division terms."

He is understandably something of a perfectionist: you do not spend 10 seasons playing for Waikato and captaining the All Blacks' second string without acquiring high standards.

Sale's victory was down to the whole team. Defensively they were impregnable. Try as they might Northampton, boasting 10 internationals, could not find a way through. Of course, the Kiwi cutting edge was ever present and Mitchell made a mammoth contribution. He put in tackles that would have stopped a runaway elephant, and was habitually up at the breakdown and winning vital time and possession.

But alongside him Vyvyan and Dylan O'Grady -whom Mitchell suggested might be worth inspection by the Irish selectors - were also superb, revealing great handling ability and snuffing out any candle of hope that Tim Rodber and Shem Tatupu occasionally raised aloft.

Behind them Simon Mannix, at stand-off, kicked the heart out of Saints and always took the right option. In the centre, Jos Baxendell and Adrian Hadley proved a dead end for any hopeful Saint careless to stray within arm's reach of them.

The outstanding Sale pack certainly had the appetite, and were superior in all phases. Saints' sorry shower - with the exception of the first 10 minutes or so - had the consistency of a sponge cake. Gone was the thrusting, steel-headed approach which has marked their league performances this season. It certainly made Rodber's assertion a fortnight ago that Northampton regarded their league match on 9 March as more important rather more prophetic.

Northampton: Penalties Grayson 3. Sale: Tries Morris, O'Grady; Penalties Mannix 4.

Northampton: N Beal; I Hunter, G Townsend, J Bell, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson; M Volland, A Clarke, G Walsh, J Chandler, M Bayfield, S Tatupu, J Wright, T Rodber (capt).

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, J Baxendell, A Hadley, T Beim; S Mannix, D Morris; P Winstanley, S Diamond, A Smith, J Fowler, D Baldwin, J Mitchell, D O'Grady (D Erskine 67-74), C Vyvyan.

Referee: S Piercy (Goole).