Saracens grateful to have friends in the north


Rugby union in the north of England is in rude health – the trouble is that the evidence lies in its best known practitioners playing the game in the south. Draw up a list of players who have deserted the environs of the Pennines and it would be a long one including Saracens' Steve Borthwick, Chris Ashton, Joel Tomkins, Richard Wigglesworth and Charlie Hodgson, who all helped spoil the Sharks' house-warming party with a 23-16 victory in the new stadium shared with Salford rugby league club, then were given leave from the return journey to London to spend the rest of the weekend catching up with family and friends in the area.

A generation ago the north had a succession of England captains in John Spencer (Headingley), Tony Neary (Broughton Park), Roger Uttley (Gosforth), Bill Beaumont (Fylde) and Sale's own Steve Smith. Since then players have gone south in a steady stream in search of trophies, money or a better standard of rugby. It would be different if there was some kind of centrally managed structure with contracts to bind players to their home region.

But in the more or less free-market Premiership, Sale are obliged to compete for signatures, keep working on their now 90-strong academy and hope that youngsters such as their try scorer on Saturday – the 20-year-old wing Will Addison – stick around to build the club. The Premiership has already seen the North's other principal teams Leeds and Newcastle relegated in 2011 and last season.

Hodgson, at least, can hardly be said to have sold his northern soul: the Yorkshire-born England fly-half had a decade with Sale before switching to Saracens. The 31-year-old kicked six penalties out of seven and made the expansive pass to Alex Goode that enabled the full-back to sprint past Danny Cipriani's tackle and send Ashton in for his third try in two matches since joining from Northampton. It was watched by the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, and assistant Andy Farrell – a Cumbrian and Wiganer respectively – but Hodgson is just another player to them now, having recently retired from internationals.

He can concentrate exclusively on adding to Sarries' two opening wins, and their twin aims of winning the Premiership and Heineken Cup.

"I'm delighted for Sale they have moved to a fantastic new stadium, they are close to my heart, and I can't say I am jumping up and down about it to win here," said Hodgson.

"With Saracens there's been a conscious effort to develop the attacking side of things, particularly when we have Chris Ashton involved with us now. His workrate around the field is phenomenal and we need to create opportunities for him."

Sale's line-out cramped Saracens' space and the Sharks' coach, Bryan Redpath, appeared satisfied to have clawed back some respect after the previous week's hammering at Exeter. The club and the region have a lot going for them but currently they are on a different plane to swanky Saracens, who meet Leicester Tigers at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.

Scorers: Sale: Try Addison; Conversion Cipriani; Penalties Cipriani 3. Saracens: Try Ashton; Penalties Hodgson 6.

Sale R Miller; W Addison, J Leota, S Tuitupou (C Uys 58), M Cueto; D Cipriani, D Peel (W Cliff 72); E Lewis-Roberts (A Dickinson 60), J Ward, V Cobilas (H Thomas 68), R Gray, K Myall, J Gaskell, D Seymour (capt), R Vernon. Saracens A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins (O Farrell 48), B Barritt, C Wyles; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 51); M Vunipola, S Brits (J George 72), P du Plessis (C Nieto 49), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (A Hargreaves 58), K Brown, W Fraser (J Wray 58), E Joubert. Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).