SALE and Northampton have had their moments this season, though they have been far too fleeting for either to make any real impact in the major competitions.
Had the landmark rulings, when the clubs and the Rugby Football Union reached agreement on Friday, included a decision to stay in Europe - which may have meant the top eight in the Premiership playing in the European Cup - there might have meant there was something to play for at Heywood Road yesterday.
For much of an enjoyable match, played in an excellent spirit, it appeared as if there was. But the Northampton prop Martin Hynes took it upon himself to spoil the day with sufficient niggling and persistent infringements to persuade the referee, Robin Goodliffe, to dismiss him a minute before full time. The decision infuriated Saints' director of rugby Ian McGeechan, who felt that Sale's Phil Winstanley was equally culpable and should also have gone.
Northampton began bristling with intent and from Gregor Townsend's quickly tapped penalty, Matt Dawson was on hand to scoop up the ball for the opening try, which he converted. Saints, showing greater urgency and some neat touches, were rewarded with a second touchdown when quick recycling enabled Townsend to set Simon Foale free, the second row crashing through Matt Moore's tackle to score in the corner.
By then, though, neither the pace nor the intensity of the game had gathered their full momentum. Dion O'Cuinneagain and Tom Beim changed that by leading a Sale breakout. Northampton killed the ball, for Shane Howarth to kick his second penalty. This was the signal for Sale to construct their most insistent rugby of the afternoon and score two sublime tries.
Matt Volland was turned over in the tackle under Sale's posts. The ball was transferred swiftly to Jos Baxendell who delivered a long cut-out pass to Jim Mallinder. It then became a race between Mallinder and Shem Tatupu. Mallinder won. Encouraged by that moment of audacity, Baxendell then put Howarth across with some delightful sleight-of-hand. Howarth converted both tries.
Saints might have made Sale sweat a little more profusely had Matt Dawson kicked the three penalties on offer in the third quarter. Dawson redeemed himself, however, by taking advantage of Sale's inertia to cross near the posts. But it was their last act before Hynes brought the curtain down. By then, Chris Murphy had crossed for a try, Howarth converted and added a penalty.
Sale: Tries Mallinder, Howarth, Murphy; Conversions Howarth 3; Penalties Howarth 3. Northampton: Tries Dawson 2, Foale; Conversions Dawson 2.
Sale: J Mallinder (capt); M Moore, J Baxendell, S Davidson (C Yates, 60), T Beim; S Howarth, R Smith; P Winstanley, S Diamond, D Bell, D Baldwin, S Raiwalui (C Murphy, 56), P Anglesea, P Sanderson, D O'Cuinneagain.
Northampton: I Hunter; C Moir, J Bell, A Northey (M Allen, 56), J Sleightholme; G Townsend, M Dawson (capt); M Volland (G Pagel, 60), A Clarke, M Hynes, J Phillips, S Foale, S Tatupu, B Pountney, G Seely (D Mackinnon 30, C Johnson 69).
Referee: R Goodliffe (Sheffield).