Steve Diamond admits Sale Sharks are signing off for Europe in prime position to attack the top half of the Aviva Premiership Rugby table after besting champions Northampton Saints 20-7.
Saints had been motoring along as the league’s top try-scorers this season with a total of 47 from 12 rounds – but Sale hardly gave them a sniff.
A bullying set-piece and a typically flashy performance from fly-half Danny Cipriani proved the difference, with Eifion Lewis-Roberts and Dan Braid touching down off the back of well-worked mauls.
Teimana Harrison’s late Saints score proved in vain – and Diamond says his side had to treat the game like a final from the word go.
“I think we have put two or three performances in like that but have been unlucky in a couple of the others, but we managed to see this one through and I’m really pleased,” he said.
“To get points off one of the top four sides is rare and we are delighted we are up there challenging for a top six spot.
“I felt that we did enough to get over the line at least a couple of times in the first half. You play against the top four sides and it’s always difficult, but on a one-off game like today we looked at it as a bit of a cup final before the break.”
Northampton will still rule the roost when Aviva Premiership Rugby returns in four weeks but boss Jim Mallinder, who watched his side lose for the first time in seven games, admits his side still have plenty of room to improve.
“We look at our game and it wasn’t good enough, I think we accept that particularly in the first half we were pretty poor, I think a lot of that comes from Sale’s good play. Defensively we need to look at that,” he said.
“We are top of the league, which is good, but there are still parts of the game we need to work on, as always.
“We have got to put this behind us, it is a blip we are not happy with it, but we will live to fight another day.”
Northampton may have enjoyed a slightly different day out without a depleted second-row however, Mallinder forced into a rash of changes with Courtney Lawes, Christian Day, Samu Manoa and James Craig all missing.
Mallinder added: “You need players in special positions and one of those special positions is big, tall heavy men in the second row – unfortunately we ran out of them today.
“I will be putting quite a lot of pressure on our medics over the next few days and hopefully we will have them back.”
Sale Sharks: Haley, Addison, Leota, Tuitupou (Arscott, 76), Cueto, Cipriani (Macleod, 70), Cusiter (Cliff, 76) Lewis-Roberts (de Marchi, 76) Jones, Cobilas, (Harrison, 63), Mills (Ioane, 70), Braid, Lund (Seymour, 52), Beaumont
Replacements not used: Neild
Foden (Pisi, 58), Elliott (Wilson, 58) Pisi, Burrell, North, Myler, Dickson (Hodgson,72) Corbisiero (Waller, 58), Haywood (Williams,72) Ma’afu (Denman, 58) Dickinson, Clark (Onojaife,74), Wood, Nutley (Harrison, 58) Dowson
Sale Sharks 20 Northampton Saints 7
Tries: Lewis-Roberts, Braid
Conversions: Cipriani 2
Penalties: Cipriani 2
Referee: Matthew Carley