Rugby Union: Lam helps Saints bite into Sale

Sale 24 Northampton 39
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NORTHAMPTON provided the biggest crowd of the season at Heywood Road ample evidence that they have what it takes to go all the way in the chase for the Premiership title. Forget the flattery; this is no more a deception than was the way Saints went about securing victory on a ground where they haven't won for the best part of a decade. In past campaigns Northampton have gone walkabout when it comes to dogging out mid-winter wins against opponents who refuse to roll over - especially away from home. But Saints are on a roll and are going to take some stopping.

This clash has gone with home advantage on seven of the nine previous occasions, including the last five, with Saints winning 37-17 at Franklins Gardens in October. However, to sustain their title challenge, Northampton needed the points where visiting sides have found it devilishly difficult to win, and only Richmond did so in the league throughout the whole of last year.

Whereas Northampton have improved considerably since they were beaten here by 30-19 last May, Sale have apparently regressed. Their inconsistency has prompted the director of rugby, John Mitchell, to declare publicly that they need more direction and leadership up front. In searching for someone who can provide it, Mitchell is prepared to off-load a couple of backs, so John Devereux and Tom Beim are on their way - Beim very probably to Gloucester - and the cash received for them will help fund a tight- head prop and pack leader. Unfortunately, Mitchell is unlikely to find what he's looking for in the sales.

As if to highlight his problem, Sale won a scrum against the head in the first minute, conceded one a minute later, which enabled Matt Dawson to feed Matt Allen for a simple try under the posts, which Paul Grayson had no difficulty in converting. While they were never able to mask their inadequacies in the tight, Sale are a very different proposition in broken play. When they did shake themselves free of Northampton's defence, it was spectacular and telling. Phil Greening set Sale moving, the audaciously talented Steve Hanley, still just 19, took it on, and with Matt Moore acting as the decoy, Hanley's dummy and blinding pace took him clear to the line. Shane Howarth converted from wide on the right.

It stayed like this until first-half injury time, when Grayson added a penalty. But then it all changed. With the Sale forwards in almost continual retreat, Dion O'Cuinneagain was white carded for not retiring at a penalty, and Saints pulled clear as Pat Lam scored two tries while the Ireland international was in the sin-bin.

While it was inevitable that Sale would ship some more water in these circumstances, it was not terminal. Hanley intervened between Lam's first two tries with a touchdown even more spectacular than his first. Richard Smith delivered a perfectly weighted chip ahead, Hanley gathered at pace and Sale were still afloat. But Lam's third try was the killer. Grayson converted and Sale were now 17 points adrift. But Jan Machcek - who had replaced the sinning O'Cuinneagain - scored a neat try, Howarth converted and Sale kept plugging away. Matt Moore got Sale's fourth try as the Saints forwards were counting their winning pay.

But their resistance was finally ended when Dom Malone raced across for Northampton's fifth try; Grayson converted to send Saints to second on the table, but only on points difference from Leicester, who played Cardiff yesterday.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); M Moore, B-J Mather, C Yates, S Hanley; S Howarth, R Smith; P Winstanley (D Williamson, 74 min), P Greening (S Diamond, 68 min), D Bell, D Baldwin (A Sanderson, h-t), C Murphy, Raiwalui, P Sanderson, D O'Cuinnneagain (J Machacek, 67 min).

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, A Blyth, M Allen, J Sleightholme; P Grayson, M Dawson (D Malone, 75 min); G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart (M Hynes, 73 min), R Metcalfe, T Rodber (capt) (J Phillips, 67 min ), G Seely, B Pountney, P Lam.

Referee: A Rowden (Thatcham, Berkshire).