A charge often levelled at Northampton – by their own supporters, on occasion – is that they are one-dimensional. But when scrum, line-out and maul are operating as well as this, why diversify? Sale will go down the same road, eventually, if Steve Diamond gets his way.
Time will tell whether the Saints' tactics will see off Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final a week today – that match and a potential "home" semi-final to follow will be played in Milton Keynes – or opponents to come if they make the Premiership play-offs. With three successive wins, they have righted a list in their form and consolidated fourth place. Only one of their England quintet was not required to go the distance – the hooker and club captain, Dylan Hartley, had the fourth quarter off – but this was an afternoon for the collective, not the individual.
Just as well, given the headlines around both clubs in the build-up. Police sources said yesterday that Northampton's England full-back, Ben Foden, had accepted a caution for causing criminal damage after an alleged altercation with a taxi driver in London early on Monday morning. Jim Mallinder, Saints' director of rugby, said the matter was closed, with Foden having apologised to the police and the club, and the Rugby Football Union not expected to take further action. Foden played well in the second-half period when Saints took advantage of the sending-off of Sale's hooker, Neil Briggs, for a daft second yellow card. The visitors were probably more inconvenienced by their midweek hassles: a four-month ban for the prop Karena Wihongi, for taking a stimulant.
Northampton had a try bonus point by the 38th minute and there were eight penalties against Sale in the first 15 minutes: for the front row standing up, for mauls being pulled down – you get the picture. Steve Myler, the Northampton fly-half, ignored shots at the posts and allowed his forwards to take the lead.
"You always hope the scrum and maul is going to be a decisive factor," said Mallinder. "When your pack is in such control it makes sense to keep the pressure on."
Charlie Hodgson, kicked a 45-metre penalty for an early Sale lead, and then kicked penalties after 30 and 32 minutes. They made it 19-16 to Northampton after Hodgson had converted Marc Jones's try – the replacement hooker was on while Briggs was in the sin-bin for offside at a ruck.
Sale lost their Wales scrum-half, Dwayne Peel, concussed in the 13th minute and conceded tries after eight, 13 and 18 minutes. Lee Dickson tapped and wriggled over for the first, Chris Ashton unleashed a swallow dive for the second and a penalty try came when Peel's replacement, Will Cliff, put an illegal boot in to a back-pedalling, seven-man Sale scrum.
Brian Mujati's bonus-point try, breaking through a line-out, came just before the interval and though Sale's Wame Lewaravu galumphed to the corner four minutes into the second half, there was a scrap going on elsewhere which cost Briggs his dismissal, for charging Courtney Lawes in the back. At the other end, at 26-21, Myler went for goal, for security. Then Saints cut loose, with Tom Wood scoring his first try for the club and another penalty try arriving, for a collapsed maul.
Shane Geraghty and Bruce Reihana came on for Myler and Diggin and Reihana scored within 30 seconds, when Geraghty ran a wraparound and Foden made the link. A mighty tackle by Lawes led to a Sale knock-on and a scrum on their own line. With a shove, a left to right run by Foden that was well held by Chris Bell and a recycle to Phil Dowson, Northampton had their eighth try.
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin (B Reihana, 68); S Myler (S Geraghty, 62), L Dickson (S Commins, 63); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 62), D Hartley (capt; B Sharman, 62), B Mujati (T Mercey, 57), C Lawes, C Day (M Sorenson, 62), C Clark (P Dowson, 52), R Wilson, T Wood.
Sale Sharks N Macleod; B Cohen, C Bell, K Tonetti (I Thornley, 72), M Cueto (capt); C Hodgson (R Miller, 71), D Peel (W Cliff, 12); L Imiolek (A Croall, 60), N Briggs, H Thomas (J Forster, 60), C Jones, W Lewaravu (N Rouse, 71), J Gaskell (M Jones, 18-28), S Koyamaibole (N McMillan, 60), D Seymour (M Jones, 50).
Referee D Rose (Warwickshire).
Tries: Dickson, Ashton, Penalty 2, Mujati, Wood, Reihana, Dowson
Cons: Myler 5
Tries: Jones, Lewaravu
Pens: Hodgson 4