Rugby Union: Grayson rings the changes

Northampton 33 Sale 14
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The Independent Online
FOR all that the running game is the rage this season, it took a belated return to rugby's age-old truths and pragmatic values for Northampton to seal an ultimately comfortable win at Franklins Gardens yesterday.

A succession of dropped passes and fumbles in the first half saw the Saints squander numerous attacking chances. However a return to basics in the second half and a change of game plan allowed them to gain a stranglehold that an increasingly ragged Sale were unable to break.

And as unfashionable as kicking may be nowadays it was the accurate boot of Paul Grayson that provided the platform for Northampton's dominance and underlined the importance and effect to a team of simply scoring points. Often it settles a team and gives them confidence - which is what brought Matt Allen his second try in the 54th minute. Grayson took a quick penalty five metres from the Sale line, allowing Allen to slice through the unprepared defence.

The skill was in the speed. It was a gamble to forego a certain three points but Grayson's quick thinking left Sale flat-footed and this is the area where Northampton improved in the second half - their decision making. Penalties were kicked or run calculatedly rather than recklessly, and it was three successful Grayson kicks in the middle of the second half that consigned Sale to defeat as Northampton went 26-14 up. David Rees did burst through for Sale but he was brilliantly cover tackled by Jon Sleight-holme 15 metres out and the support was not quick enough to carry the move on.

In contrast, Northampton never lacked for options as the forwards marauded all over the pitch. Tim Rodber was particularly impressive, appearing to be almost everywhere at once. He was the spearhead as the forwards kept punching their way over the gain line and forcing Sale backwards. This dominance by the pack brought the penalties for Grayson to kick, but Northampton were more than just a forward drive.

The backs, when released by the flat-standing Grayson, ran the ball wide in the second half, something they failed to achieve in the first as Gregor Townsend and Jon Bell suffered from butterfingers. Down 14-10 at the start of the second half to two Tom Beim tries in three minutes it appeared that the fumbling disease had reach-ed Sleightholme when he dropped the ball with the line at his mercy.

Townsend at least was able to finish a mixed day on a high note by scoring in the corner from a Rodber pass as Sale, looking increasingly bereft of ideas limped to defeat. They have now not won since in the league since 9 November and really only threatened when North-ampton were disorganised. Lower mid-table obscurity beckons for them but Northampton, on their second half performance at least, have higher sights.

Northampton: J Bell; J Sleightholme, G Townsend, M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, J Bramhall; G Pagel, C Johnson, M Stewart, J Phillips, J Chandler, D Mackinnon, B Pountney, T Rodber (capt).

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, J Baxendell, S Howarth, T Beim; S Mannix, R Smith; P Smith, S Diamond, D Bell, D Baldwin, S Raiwalui, D Erskine, P Sanderson, D O'Cuinneagain.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).

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