Life's not a beach for lightweight Sale pack

Sale 7 Northampton 15
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The Independent Online

This multi-millionaire lifestyle lark is not all it's cracked up to be. Brian Kennedy, the self-confessed rugby obsessive responsible for the lion's share of the spending that allows Sale to fight the good fight in a part of the world wholly dominated by football, abandoned his winter break on a ski slope somewhere in America for an afternoon on the beach. "Poor him", you might say in ironic tones, until you learn that the beach was situated in the well-known rich man's playground of Stockport, and the reason for the abrupt change of plan was the parlous state of the club Kennedy has been keeping afloat since the pioneering days of professionalism.

"The skiing was good, for about a minute," he said as he cast a worried eye over the Edgeley Park surface, which, being three parts sand, is one of the principal contributing factors to Sale's arrival at the very foot of the Premiership table. Kennedy can afford the odd unforeseen flight home – not for him the cheapskate, non-flexible ticket with easyJet – but his refusal to turn a blind eye, even when his eyes were happily concealed behind a trendy pair of designer snow goggles, spoke volumes for his commitment.

Sale were champions as recently as 2006, and Northampton, the side who left them rock bottom yesterday, were relegated the following season. How times have changed. The Midlanders might easily win the title in May, while the northerners have the fight of their lives ahead of them just to stay up. They are not wholly without top-drawer talent, especially down the spine of their side: Sisa Koyamaibole, Dwayne Peel and Charlie Hodgson stood up to be counted yesterday, and with strike runners as good as Mathew Tait and Mark Cueto due back from England duty later this month, their finishing will surely improve. But they are paper-thin up front, and that lack of "grunt" could ultimately be the undoing of them.

"When we lost to Leeds recently, I told the players that if we were down to the final two matches and it was between us and them, the smart money would have to go on them," admitted Kingsley Jones, the Sale coach, after watching his side register a sixth defeat in seven Premiership outings. "We have some problems up front, especially at the set-piece, and our own pitch doesn't suit us because we're at our happiest on a fast track. But we're not in the final two matches, thankfully. There's actually quite a long way to go, and if we win our game in hand against Wasps later this month we'll leapfrog a few teams. It's not a pretty picture at the moment, but the last thing we need to do is panic.

"Besides, this is where you find out about people, isn't it? It's easy when you're at the top, where I've been lucky enough to spend most of my six years at the club. Down here at the bottom, it's tough. Looking at that performance out there, I don't think you can question anyone's desire. But desire is the minimum requirement of a professional player. We need more than that, and I'm hoping that as people come back to us and the surfaces become harder, we'll pick up some results."

Under circumstances as fraught as these, a losing bonus point would have been a result of sorts. Even that proved elusive, Hodgson hitting an upright with a long-range penalty shot five minutes into stoppage time. There again, Northampton would have been over the hills and far away by the end of the first half had Stephen Myler been in any kind of kicking form. The outside-half missed four easy shots, each one of them the rugby equivalent of a three-foot putt, and it was not until Bruce Reihana took over the marksmanship responsibilities and converted Paul Diggin's sweet try down the left two minutes from the interval that either set of sticks was successfully bisected. Nine minutes into the second period, Chris Ashton claimed an even better score, beautifully constructed in a minimum of space by a gaggle of outside backs.

It was Ashton's 12th Premiership try of the campaign – he is far and away the league's leading accumulator – and there was precious little prospect of Sale reeling in a 15-point deficit. They gave it their all, though, not least the Fijian No 8 Koyamaibole, who repeatedly salvaged handy bits and pieces from the ashes of the Sale scrum, allowing Peel and Hodgson to weave their patterns and plot the occasional route through Northampton's fierce back-row defence.

Finally, after what seemed like an entire epoch's worth of pressure, they found a way over the line. Ben Cohen, one of only half a dozen members of the 2003 World Cup-winning England team still playing this hard old game, succeeded where Hodgson, Marika Vakacegu and Jonny Kennedy had failed by inches, touching down with a man to spare after a sustained attack expertly marshalled by his half-backs. Hodgson's wonderfully precise wide-angled conversion raised the possibility of a more tangible reward, but it was not to be.

"What is there to do, apart from crack on with it?" the engaging Jones had asked before the game. He has had no luck: after losing many of his most productive personnel in the summer, including three or four players who might be placed among the world's leading 30, he was until recently labouring in the face of an injury list from hell. He is right to believe his team will perform better as the spring conditions kick in, but relegation dogfights are nasty and brutal, and there are nastier, more brutal packs operating in the bottom reaches of the Premiership than Sale's.

Sale: Try Cohen; Conversion Hodgson. Northampton: Tries Diggin, Ashton; Conv Reihana; Penalty Geraghty.

Sale: N MacLeod; M Vakacegu, J Kennedy, L Thomas (D Bishop, 72), B Cohen; C Hodgson, D Peel; E Roberts, N Briggs (M Jones, 81), J Forster (G Kerr, h-t), C Jones (S Cox, 50-58 and 76), D Schofield (capt), K Ormsby (D Seymour, 53), C Fearns, S Koyamaibole.

Northampton: B Reihana; C Ashton, J Ansbro, J Downey (J Clarke, 76), P Diggin; S Myler (S Geraghty, 61), L Dickson (A Dickens, 68); S Tonga'uhia (R Dreyer, 81), B Sharman (A Long, 76), B Mujati (D Morris, 68), I Fernandez Lobbe (capt, D Vickerman, 56), J Kruger, C Lawes (P Dowson, 61), N Best, R Wilson.

Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).