Rugby Union: Sale in shop window

Northampton 9 Sale 22
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Sale may not appreciate the comparison but during their relentless rise to the top this season they have become the Wimbledon of English rugby. Home or away, rain hail or shine, they are the very devil to beat. Muscularly abrasive, cussed and street-wise in all the important places, they have proved themselves to be more than a match for more obviously gifted opponents.

That is how it was at Franklins Gardens yesterday when Sale, with an overpowering display of might and possessiveness, and when required, finesse, reached the semi-final of the Cup for the first time since 1976. On this form they need fear no one.

Although this was, above everything else, a triumph of teamwork, two individuals stood head and shoulders above the rest, both contributing the decisive moments of the match. John Mitchell, Sale's player-coach was one of them, the other was the ever-green Dewi Morris, who plays with the head of a 33-year-old and the legs of a teenager.

For Northampton the tie might just have been lost as much on the training field on Thursday night as it was on the pitch yesterday. The injury sustained by Budge Pountney, the Saints' open side, was crucial. His replacement Jon Wright, hard though he tried, was cruelly exposed time and again in the first half when Morris, Simon Mannix and the two centres, Adrian Hadley and Jos Baxendell, found enticing gaps close to the forwards and in midfield.

Furthermore Tim Rodber, without quality support, took far too much on himself and frequently halted Northampton's momentum. It was a mystery too why Northampton, with so many thoroughbreds lined up in the back division, should have persisted in holding the ball at the back of what was almost invariably a retreating scrummage. With Martin Bayfield nowhere near the force of old and with Allen Clarke's throwing into the line-out more often a miss than a hit, Northampton's forwards were constantly on the back foot against a superbly well-marshalled unit whose tigerish defence was matched by an obssessive determination to keep hold of the ball. Their ball retention was at times breathtaking.

With Paul Grayson and Mannix matching each other penalty kick for kick until the final quarter, the result hinged on Morris' try on the stroke of half-time. Baxendell had broken out and kicked deep into the Northampton 22 for his wing David Rees. Gregor Townsend covered across to tackle Rees but Sale, sensing the importance of the situation, were not going to leave empty handed. Following a series of scrums on the Northampton line, one of which appeared to yield a perfectly good try for Morris, there was a line-out five metres out. It was a perfectly planned move clinically executed. The only problem was that it was Northampton who did the planning and Sale the executing.

Clarke threw to the front, Jason Chandler tapped accurately into Morris's arms and the scrum-half was over in the corner. It was the softest of gifts for Sale, the harshest of punishments for Northampton.

Five points ahead, Sale proceeded to give a classic demonstration of how to protect a lead, keeping play in no-man's land and permitting Grayson just three long-range kicks at goal, two of which he missed. When, occasionally, the Sale forwards appeared to be tiring, Mitchell and Morris sealed up the gaps. Once Mitchell exploded into Townsend with a tackle of such crushing ferocity that it took both players fully 30 seconds to re-orientate themselves. From it Sale forced their way up to the Northampton line and once again nothing was going to budge them. Northampton twisted and turned, took massive risks and tried everything they knew to break clear but the Sale defence was impregnable. Northampton were locked inside their 22 for the final 10 minutes and in that time Sale succeeded in scoring again when Dylan O'Grady blasted over from five metres.

It was a performance which confirmed Sale as a side capable of beating the best in the land but it also raised a number of questions about a number of players who are supposedly the best in their positions in the land.

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, T Rodber (capt), J Wright.

Sale: J Mallinder (capt); D Rees, J Baxendell, A Hadley, T Beim; S Mannix, D Morris; P Winstanley, S Diamond, A Smith, D Baldwin, J Fowler, J Mitchell, C Vyvyan, D O'Grady (D Erskine, 70-75).

Referee: S Piercy (Yorkshire)