Hougaard is key to Sale's downfall in a downpour

Saracens 15 Sale 13: Saracens kick on at the top as five penalties from their South African fly-half grind out another victory

This was grim, dank, teeth-gnashing rugby and if anyone can remember in six months' time a single detail of what went on under the Watford lights last night it will be a major surprise.

Not that Saracens will give a monkey's if, as looks increasingly likely, they finish up in the Premiership play-offs. With an admirable team ethic shining through in a desire to fight for every centimetre of turf, they maintained their unbeaten record in the league and moved further ahead of London Irish at the top of the table.

This season's relocation to Wembley stadium for four fixtures, including the Premiership matches against Worcester and Harlequins next spring, has left Vicarage Road, with its condemned stand and half-finished building, looking more dowdy than ever; a little like re-decorating your kitchen and realising how drab it makes the bathroom look. The chill and incessant rain did little to encourage a walk-up crowd here, despite Saracens' fine record of one defeat in their previous 18 matches in all competitions.

There have been grumbles too about Saracens' straightforward style, though mostly from humbled opponents as the long-time underachievers have risen to the top of the Premiership without a single bonus point. This was certainly a night for a safe set piece and judicious use of the boot. Derick Hougaard kicked a fifth-minute penalty when Sale pulled down a maul, then after 16 minutes the fly-half kicked in behind Marika Vakacegu, forcing the Fijian wing to turn and fumble the ball into touch. Ernst Joubert caught the line-out and another trundling maul ensued but claims for a try as Schalk Brits and Carlos Nieto drove for the line were turned down by the television match official, for lack of evidence among a pile of bodies.

Vakacegu, who had replaced Mark Cueto at 24 hours' notice when the England wing cried off with a bad back, had a first half to forget, twice kicking dead and knocking on in another good position. Sale were more effective elsewhere, though, and with their fly-half, Charlie Hodgson, pulling the strings they forced a try in the 28th minute. The No 8 Sisa Koyamaibole shunted past a fellow Fijian, Moses Rauluni, and Hougaard from a close-range ruck, and Hodgson converted for a 7-3 lead.

Saracens' director of rugby, Brendan Venter, had implied in midweek that England's management had been ignoring Alex Goode, Andy Saull and Noah Cato, although you would imagine Steve Borthwick to be a good conduit of information, as captain of club and country. Saull and Goode have been tipped by their illustrious Saracens predecessor Richard Hill for inclusion in England's revised senior squad next month. Sadly this match ended early for Goode, when he crashed to the ground after a mid-air tackle by Neil Briggs and left the field with a bloodied face.

Two penalties by Hougaard to one from Hodgson had Sale 10-9 up at half-time.

Sale, who are in the bottom half of the standings, were counting on a little extra freshness after the postponement of their match against Wasps the previous weekend. Still they were unable to quite quell the dogged fervour at close quarters of Joubert and Wikus van Heerden who, if a vote for Premiership player of the year was taken right now, would be among the top three or four. The other eye-catching display, in a gung-ho, individualistic kind of way, was from the wing Chris Wyles, who switched to full-back when Goode went off. Saull also limped away, in the second half.

Sale went off their feet at a ruck in the 47th minute, allowing Hougaard to kick his fourth penalty, and the South African added another just after the hour, having missed one in between. Sale came closest to a match-turning try when they attacked deep into the Saracens 22 but Mathew Tait's pass was slightly deflected by a Saracen's fingertips and the chance was lost. Hodgson's penalty for offside with seven minutes remaining did no more than consolidate the visitors' losing bonus point, welcome though it was.

Saracens: A Goode (R Penney, 17); N Cato, K Ratuvou, A Powell, C Wyles; D Hougaard, M Rauluni; R Gill, S Brits (E Reynecke, 50), C Nieto (R Skuse, 50), S Borthwick (capt), H Smith (H Vyvyan, 50), W van Heerden, E Joubert, A Saull (D Barrell, 50).

Sale: N Macleod; M Vakacegu, M Tait, D Bishop, B Cohen; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth; E Roberts, N Briggs, J Forster (M Halsall, 70), D Schofield (capt; J Gaskell, 29), S Cox, C Fearns, S Koyamaibole, D Seymour.

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).

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