Hodgson delivers reality check to Smith's dreams

Northampton 10 Sale 20
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The Independent Online

Wayne Smith's dream start to his spell at Franklin's Gardens was ended in emphatic fashion by an ebullient Sale side who raised doubts as to whether the former New Zealand coach can take his new charges to a top four finish in the Premiership and guarantee them a place in next season's Heineken Cup. Playing with the sort of confidence which seems to come naturally to them, Sale's hopes of finishing so high are far from misplaced.

Before Smith arrived in early December, Northampton were one place off the bottom and playing without conviction or purpose. But they have won seven of their last eight games and look a different proposition. The transformation has owed plenty to All Black magic but Paul Grayson seems to have recovered some of his England form. Olivier Brouzet's return from injury and Johan Ackermann's arrival has given the pack a sharper focus.

Grayson failed a fitness test on an old hip injury, which meant a recall for Alastair Hepher from Bedford, where he was on loan. Missing, too, was Scotland's captain Budge Pountney with an abdominal problem. Watching how the new England squad member Mark Cueto shaped up against Ben Cohen, and Jason Robinson's second run at centre, was Brian Ashton, Clive Woodward's assistant coach.

Northampton started slowly and fell behind in the second minute to a penalty from Charlie Hodgson, who made light of the wind. Hepher's response was to miss from an easier position, but he did convert Tom Smith's try from the touchline to give Saints a 7-3 lead at the break. In Northampton's only period of sustained pressure, Nick Beal opened up the defence and the forwards drove to within an inch of the line. The ball was moved left and John Leslie popped a sweet pass for the Scotland prop to touch down.

A curiously unsure Saints could not put Sale under pressure in the third quarter and went walkabout as Mel Deane cut them open for Robinson who cross the line. Hodgson missed the conversion but scored a penalty to go 11-7 ahead. He slid another in off the upright so that Saints needed a converted try to draw level.

But Saints went from bad to worse, lacking ambition, creating little except a chance for Beal to convert a penalty and letting a lightweight Sale pack dominate territory and possession. Sensing it was his day, Hodgson added another penalty and a drop goal to count Saints out.

Northampton: N Beal; C Moir, P Jorgensen, J Leslie (capt), B Cohen; A Hepher (I Vass, 71), J Brooks; T Smith, S Thompson (D Richmond, 52), M Stewart, J Ackermann, O Brouzet (J Phillips, 76), A Rennick, M Soden, A Blowers.

Sale: V Going; M Cueto (J Baxendell, 27), J Robinson, M Deane, S Hanley; C Hodgson, B Redpath (capt) (A Dickens, 43); K Yates, A Titterrell (C Marias, 76), S Turner (A Black, 84), I Fullarton, S Lines, S Pinkerton, P Davies, A Sanderson.

Referee: R Maybank (Orpington, Kent).