Sale 32 Northampton 20: Merlin finds Hodgson too tricky by far

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The Independent Online

Whether or not it was timely, given the latest misfortune to befall Jonny Wilkinson, will not be of particular concern to Charlie Hodgson. The Sale fly-half can only control his own performance, and this one was of almost unadulterated quality.

The tiny equivocation - given Hodgson kicked 22 points without a single miss and dazzlingly put his opposite number, Carlos Spencer, in the shade - was the occasional missed tackle. The most obvious allowed Robbie Kydd, Northampton's full-back, through a gap in the second half, but it came to nothing and Kydd, in any case, looked capable of giving anyone the hurry-up.

Nobody, as they say, is perfect, but Hodgson came close. He at least can regard the prospect of England duty a few weeks hence with relish.

The lexicon of descriptions surrounding Spencer seems most often thumbed around the letter M - maverick, mercurial, Merlin the magician, even rugby's answer to Diego Maradona - but to this we can add, after yesterday, "moaner". On a couple of occasions he tried to rough up Hodgson, who responded with a grin while the New Zealander flung up his arms at some perceived wrongdoing. The exceptional finishing of Sean Lamont, a Scot with a precious gift for running straight lines, was of no avail to Northampton, who never held the lead.

Both sides pride themselves on their scrummaging, and it was no surprise when an early pack-down broke up with two props shying away at each other. Pat Barnard, a South African with designs on qualifying for England, traded harmless right-handers with Andy Sheridan. The referee David Rose - god bless him for his good sense - let them off with a warning, although more importantly it cost Sale a kickable penalty which was reversed. Sheridan, who was making his first start since February after injury, called on a nearby touch judge to "open his eyes".

Sale led 6-3 at the end of the opening quarter - two Hodgson penalties to one by Bruce Reihana - and Northampton had their blind-side flanker Paul Tupai in the sin bin for killing the ball. Saints had also blown three points when their England hooker Steve Thompson chose eccentrically to cross-kick a penalty to Spencer. Sale's defence scrambled across.

After 26 minutes Sale had their first of their two tries. They got their French No 8 Sébastian Chabal just where they like him, standing one off at a ruck, and after the inevitable crash, bang wallop dragged in the defence, Hodgson combined sweetly with Mark Cueto arcing on to his right shoulder for the wing's first try of the season.

Hodgson converted and dropped two goals either side of another penalty from close to halfway, for a 22-3 advantage. Northampton sneaked through in the seventh minute of first-half added time when Lamont beat off a couple of soft tackles and Reihana converted, but even though they scored again five minutes into the second half - Tupai at the right-hand corner after multiple phases - the home side were not rattled.

A lovely break by Hodgson only faltered when Chris Mayor was clattered by Lamont. Then Sale's centre Chris Bell charged down Reihana on the Saints 22. The ball bounced to the openside flanker Magnus Lund, who scored near the posts. Lund's sideways glance suggested he, like everyone else in the ground, thought he might have been offside. But Mr Rose got the thumbs-up from the television match official.

Lund suffered 10 minutes in the sin bin but Sale merely added to their lead with a fourth penalty by Hodgson. Lamont went over again for Norhampton from a pass out of the side door by Spencer, and that was it.

There were surely a few too many empty Edgeley Park seats for Sale's liking, but the nine and a half thousand spectators who were here had two kinds of fun - watching Hodgson on top of his game, and pantomime-booing Spencer all the way to the final whistle.

Sale: J Robinson (capt); M Cueto, C Mayor (M Taylor, 60), C Bell, O Ripol; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (B Foden, 75); A Sheridan (B Stewart, 40-51), S Bruno (P Gaona, 70), B Evans (Stewart, 51), C Jones (D Tait, 75), J White, J-M Fernandez Lobbe, S Chabal (C Day, 60), M Lund. Northampton: R Kydd; S Lamont, B Reihana (capt), D Quinlan, P Diggin; C Spencer, M Robinson (I Vass, 72); T Smith, S Thompson (D Richmond, 33), P Barnard (C Budgen, 77), Damien Browne (M Lord, 57), C Short, P Tupai, Daniel Browne (M Easter, 70), D Fox (B Lewitt, 70).

Referee: D Rose (Warwickshire).