Northampton shake off Sale and head for play-offs

Northampton 53 Sale 24
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The Independent Online

Good luck to the independent citing officer who gets to pore over the television footage of the second-half brawl among half a dozen players that cost Sale's Neil Briggs a sending-off for a second yellow card.

Slowed down and replayed, it looked as if the England wing Mark Cueto had his fingers in or around the eyes of Northampton's Christian Day, once a club-mate of Cueto's at Sale. The shoulder charge by Briggs into the back of Courtney Lawes was only the most obvious offence and – as has been the way since time immemorial – the hooker was the one singled out and dealt with by the referee on the spot.

Cueto, possibly, was just trying to get a grip on Day's scrum cap; other hands met other faces. These things can become less clear the more often you hit the rewind button.

Out in the real world of trial and error, another England back, Ben Foden, started last week under arrest after an alleged altercation with a London taxi driver. The Rugby Football Union will decide this week whether to take further action, but, having accepted a police caution for causing criminal damage, the Northampton full-back was free to help Saints shake off Sale with eight tries.

Two penalty tries were earned in the scrum and maul – an area of such dominance for Northampton that they did not need to be fancy in the midfield.

As it was 12 months ago, Northampton look set for the Premiership's play-offs, while Sale still fear the snapping teeth of the teams below them. Unless Leicester or Saracens falter, though, Northampton will not repeat their top-two finish of 2010 and may have to settle for an away semi-final.

They also have Europe to think about, with a "home" tie against Ulster in Milton Keynes this Sunday and a semi-final at the same venue if they win. "We seem to have got over the bad patch," said Northampton's England flanker, Tom Wood, referring to the six straight league defeats from January to March.

Charlie Hodgson, Sale's fly-half, declared his frustration that the hard graft which kept Northampton to 19-16 after 32 minutes, and 26-21 when Briggs was dismissed four minutes into the second half, counted for nothing.

But Hodgson is off to Saracens in the summer, so the problems will be someone else's: principally Steve Diamond, Sale's head of coaching.

Scorers: Northampton: Tries Dickson, Ashton, penalty 2, Mujati, Wood, Reihana, Dowson; Conversions Myler 5; Penalties Myler.

Sale: Tries M Jones, Lewaravu; Conversion Hodgson; Penalties Hodgson 4.

Northampton 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), T Wood, R Wilson.

Sale 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), D Seymour (M Jones, 50), S Koyamaibole (N McMillan, 60).

Referee D Rose (Warwickshire).