Two eyeballs-out Heineken Cup ties, against Munster and Perpignan, in the past fortnight appeared to have taken some of the oomph out of Northampton and there were few dissenting voices from the home supporters when Shane Geraghty, the hot tip to receive an England call-up tomorrow, was taken off with more than a quarter of this match to go. There had, indeed, been plenty of groans when Geraghty, possessor of gifts most can only dream of when the ball is in his hands, was kicking high and often. You pays your money...
Sale's pragmatic approach to Europe had been to rest their first-choice team in Toulouse two weeks ago and they pushed their highly-placed hosts all the way here to grab a bonus point with Charlie Hodgson's penalty in the final act. Had their centre Andy Tuilagi not made an idiotic trip to the sin-bin for the 10 minutes before half-time – Northampton scored 12 points in the Samoan's absence – the Franklin's Gardens regulars might have been fuming over a more damaging result.
Saints began with up-the-jumper rugby which forced Sale back and allowed Geraghty to open a 3-0 lead. Hodgson levelled the scores, then Geraghty settled into booting the ball into a sky turning clear-blue after early rain or popping it to the heavy brigade: Phil Dowson, Soane Tonga'uiha, Courtney Lawes and the like. Lawes, incidentally, had an outstanding match in the line-out and the loose and the 20-year-old must be an England player of the future, near or far. He, like Geraghty and Saints' full-back, Ben Foden, is currently a Saxon but could be promoted tomorrow when Martin Johnson names a revised 32-man senior squad for the autumn Tests. Leicester's Richard Blaze and Nick Kennedy of London Irish are Lawes' rivals to stand in for Simon Shaw.
Geraghty's unique selling point is his inventiveness at close quarters, hard against the gain line. He started the season at inside centre – and is widely believed to be inked in there for the match against Australia on 7 November, alongside Jonny Wilkinson – but due to an opening-day injury to Stephen Myler he has been at fly-half for seven straight matches. Only when Tuilagi saw a yellow card for a petulant jab at Chris Ashton after the whistle did the game break up a little, and Geraghty helped make things happen. Tonga'uiha wrested a turnover from Sale's No 8, Sisaro Koyamibole and Foden sprinted into the line, and though the full-back's pass to Ashton was a little high the wing held it and Foden mauled it over the line despite a tug on his jersey by a Sale defender.
Geraghty's conversion made it 10-3 and two minutes later, with the countdown clock on zero, Northampton were in again. Tonga'uiha drove close to the line, Geraghty and Ashton slung it out wide and Bruce Reihana beat Mark Cueto at the corner.
Sale were back to the full complement for the second half and after a Geraghty penalty made it 18-3, the elephant in the room revealed itself. Northampton were lacking three tightheads, including Brian Mujati who, along with the suspended lock Juandre Kruger, came back from the trip to Perpignan with a citing hanging over him. Tonga'uiha shifted across to cover. Unfortunately for Sale, there were hardly any scrums. At one of them, though, on a Saints put-in deep in their own 22, the ball squirted clear and Sale's promising beanpole of a blindside, James Gaskell, pounced for a try converted by Hodgson: 18-10.
It was an uncomfortable moment for Saints' England hooker, Dylan Hartley, whose rival, Lee Mears of Bath, could be back within a couple of weeks after a relatively favourable scan on his medial ligament injury. While Sale's Wales prop prospect, Eifion Roberts, prayed for more scrums, Myler came on for Geraghty after 59 minutes.
"Shane's a realist, he knows there are parts of his game he can still improve," said Jim Mallinder, the Northampton coach. "We told Stephen to control the game and kick to the corners. To kill the game, really."
The new man missed a penalty, as did Hodgson from fairly short range. Then there were yellow cards for killing the ball after the tackle – to Mark Easter for Saints and Sale's Brent Cockbain – and penalties by Hodgson and Myler had Sale trailing 21-13.
When Cueto and Chris Bell freed Sean Cox on the right there was a defensive test for Foden, who is hoping England will plump for him at No 15, rather than switching Harlequins' Ugo Monye from the wing. Although Cox would not be the most nimble opponent Foden has faced, the tackle was a good one. But the position eventually yielded a penalty which Hodgson kicked with no little relief.
Northampton Saints B Foden; C Ashton, C Mayor (J Ansbro, 54), J Downey, B Reihana; S Geraghty (S Myler, 59), L Dickson (A Dickens, 71); R Dreyer, D Hartley (capt), S Tonga'uiha, I Fernandez Lobbe (C Day, 59), C Lawes, P Dowson, R Wilson, N Best (M Easter, 51).
Sale Sharks N Macleod; M Cueto, M Tait (C Bell, 75), A Tuilagi, B Cohen; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (D Peel, 71); G Kerr (J Forster, 56), M Jones, E Roberts, D Schofield (capt; R O'Donnell, 75), S Cox, J Gaskell (B Cockbain, 51), S Koyamibole (D Tait, 54), D Seymour.
Referee: P Fitzgibbon (Ireland).