Fourteen years have passed since Northampton were champions of Europe and three since they were last in the final, but they are in prime fettle for another assault. They lead the way, from the top of the Aviva Premiership, into the refurbished European Champions Cup which begins for them next Saturday against Racing Métro in Paris.
Yesterday both their attack and defence excelled. Three of their six tries went to Samu Manoa, their American No 8, but in the final 10 minutes, conceding a stream of penalties from a final, frantic Sale Sharks assault, they tackled as though their lives depended on it.
Kahn Fotuali'i provided the best illustration. Having snaffled a try from a ruined Sale scrum, he popped up at the other end with a magnificent hit on Alberto De Marchi when it seemed that only three vacant metres stood between the Sale prop and the try line. Northampton had been forced to concede one try, a splendid 60-metre effort involving Tom Brady, Joe Ford and the scorer, Mark Jennings; they were not about to concede another.
If there was a muscular edge to Northampton's game, it seemed only part of the preparation for sterner competition and winter. Yet their passing game remains intact, as they showed when going for a seventh try in time added on when almost any other team in the Premiership would have booted a penalty to touch to end the game.
"We're in pretty good shape going into Europe, we're where we wanted to be after six games," Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby, said. "We've rotated the team a little bit, we've players coming back from injury but we know that going to Racing will challenge us."
Sale played far too much of the game in retreat, and Steve Diamond, their director of rugby, who now has to lift his side's spirits for a game against Munster, was too angry to make a post-match appearance. It is always a telltale sign when the first-choice half- backs depart relatively soon after the interval, an acknowledgement that the match has gone.
The visiting scrum struggled to survive, their line-out – despite the best efforts of Michael Paterson – faltered badly, and could have done worse had some crooked throws been spotted. It was an overthrown Sale line-out that gave Manoa the first of his tries; all he had to do was flop over the line.
At that stage Sale were still kicking themselves for giving Ken Pisi the space to score the opening try. The wing stepped out of Jonny Leota's tackle and fended off two more tackles for the kind of try that has defence coaches tearing out their hair. Before the half was out, the younger Pisi had laid on a try for older brother George, catching Stephen Myler's cross-kick and handing on to his sibling.
Courtney Lawes was denied a score early the second half after good work by Christian Day but Manoa clamped down the lid on any hopes of a Sale revival. Twice Northampton gathered themselves at close-range line-outs and drove him over the line, and Fotuali'i's try, when the ball bobbled out of Sale's scrum, cancelled out the score by Jennings, the only bright spot for the visitors.
Northampton: A B Foden; K Pisi (G North, 57), G Pisi (J Wilson, 57), L Burrell, J Elliott; S Myler (K Fotuali'i, 64), L Dickson; A Waller (E Waller, 61), M Haywood (D Hartley, 53), S Ma'afu (G Denman, 36-40, 53), C Lawes (C Clark, 57), C Day, T Wood (capt; P Dowson, 33-40), J Fisher (Dowson, 41), S Manoa.
Sale: L McLean; T Brady, J Leota (A Forsyth, 56), M Jennings, T Arscott; D Cipriani (G Ford, 56), C Cusiter (W Cliff, 56); R Harrison (A De Marchi, 60), M Jones (C Neild, 68), V Cobilas (E Lewis Roberts, 60), J Beaumont (J Mills, 56), M Paterson, M Lund, D Seymour (capt), M Easter (V Fihaki, 56).
Referee: A Small.Reuse content