Furbank and Mitchell lead Northampton to victory over determined Sale, securing their top spot.
It may be a cliche, but this really was a game of two halves. The first was a dire watch, one bereft of spark or inspiration. The second was a riot as two title-chasing teams shook off the fog of perhaps too much Christmas merriment and gave a sell-out crowd what was promised on the tin: five tries, one a decisive penalty try, and a famous home victory that takes Northampton top of the Premiership.
Both coaches likely had negative things to say to their players during halftime, but at least Sale’s coach, Alex Sanderson, had a try to make it easier to accept. This happened in the 38th minute, the first score of the game, thanks to Tom Roebuck’s impressive catch and run in Northampton’s 22. With a penalty advantage, George Ford drew in a defender, allowing Joe Carpenter to score on the outside.
In the first 40 minutes, there was a display of big players colliding with each other without a clear goal or strategy. Random kicks were exchanged and the ball was dropped during tackles. The set pieces were not executed smoothly. When Fin Smith missed a 40-meter penalty, the crowd expressed their disappointment with a louder groan than any of their previous cheers.
Not that Sale were offering much in attack themselves. Neither team managed to string together a move stretching beyond five phases until Northampton were spooked into action after Carpenter’s try. How Sanderson must have been yearning for the wrecking ball that is the injured Manu Tuilagi.
Phil Dowson, who plays for Sanderson’s team, did not have any positive outcomes to hold onto. Prior to this round, Northampton had made the most clean breaks out of all the teams. They achieved this by making passes in a different direction, powerful runs from the number 10 position, and spreading the ball wide. However, none of these tactics were effective against Sale’s fast pace and aggressive defense, causing the hosts to struggle and forcing Smith to look for support players in chaotic situations.
Dowson praised Sale for their strong defense, stating that they are among the top teams in the league. He also mentioned the importance of wearing down opponents and how they were able to execute their typical strategy in the second half.
The team burst out of the tunnel with renewed energy and precision. A newfound width allowed Ollie Sleightholme to make a strong run down the left side. However, a last-ditch tackle from Robert du Preez prevented Northampton from scoring.
Real rugby is starting to become visible in the midst of darkness. The Sale team, with a lineout at their own line, gradually moved forward and then had the opportunity for another throw at the opposite end. The maul was halted, but they maintained possession until Luke Cowan-Dickie made his way over to score. Ford, who had previously missed an easy kick, successfully made the additional points.
Sanderson stated that we were engaged in the battle and determined to win, and likely had control of the game if not for some mistakes and lack of discipline.
Northampton fought back and with help from Smith, George Furbank broke free and evaded a defender to make a long run and score. Ford successfully made a drop-goal to regain control, but when Sale’s try in the corner was disallowed, the Saints gained confidence. Substitute Courtney Lawes had an impact near the edges and this led to improved forward momentum for the team in green and black. In the final 15 minutes, Alex Mitchell took advantage of a small opening to score from close distance.
Northampton had gained momentum at this point. A penalty and powerful runs from the following lineout put them in a promising position near Sale’s 22. Furbank then quickly took advantage of another penalty under the goalposts, carrying two defenders with him. One of them, Asher Opoku-Fordjour, was offside, resulting in a penalty try and giving Northampton the lead for the first time.
They did not give it up. And when Alex Coles, in his 100th game for the club, intercepted a lineout at the very end to secure the win, the tiresome struggle disappeared immediately.