Sale Sharks asserted their top four credentials in style by becoming only the second side to defeat Northampton Saints in the Aviva Premiership this season, prevailing 19-6 at the AJ Bell Stadium.
Tries from Mark Cueto, Marc Jones and Tom Brady saw Sale romp into a 19-6 lead at half-time and a superb rearguard action in the second half kept Northampton at bay.
Saints welcomed back their England contingent of Courtney Lawes, Dylan Hartley, Luther Burrell, Lee Dickson and Tom Wood – not to mention Wales flyer George North – but Jim Mallinder’s men were decidedly off colour, six days after losing the LV= Cup final.
It’s the first time Saints have lost back-to-back matches this season, a first Aviva Premiership defeat in 14 and it ended their run of 11 wins on the bounce, handing the initiative back to Saracens in the race for top spot.
For Sale meanwhile, it was a fifth win in sixth, taking them up to fifth spot and boosting their play-off hopes no end.
Will Hooley, making his first Aviva Premiership start as a late replacement for Stephen Myler, put the visitors on the board after just three minutes from a penalty but Sale hit straight back five minutes later from a clever blind-side break by Dwayne Peel.
The ball was recycled and spread to the wing with Cueto going in to score his ninth of the season and his 86th in the Premiership, Danny Cipriani converting.
Hooley kicked his second penalty in the 23rd minute as Saints camped out in the Sale half but failed to break the defensive line.
Cipriani pushed a penalty attempt wide before the Sharks pushed up field again with Tom Arscott recovering an up-and-under and the home side put successive penalties into the corner.
Jones bundled over the line in the 33rd minute to score prompting a scuffle to break out with Hartley and Sam Tuitupou both receiving yellow cards.
A third try for Sale followed five minutes later with Brady latching onto a delightful grubber kick from Cipriani before the former Wasp converted.
The visitors again looked likely to score marching a maul into the shadow of the Sale posts soon after the break but the blue wall held firm as the rain pelted down.
From a penalty Saints kicked to touch and continued hammering away at the Sharks defence but to no avail.
When they appeared to have the home side at breaking point a forward pass from the impressive Hooley looked to have ruined the chance.
Gluttons for punishment Sale spilled the ball but then held up Burrell in the tackle before finally escaping their 22.
Northampton were soon back though keeping the pressure on and were rewarded with a penalty at the scrum. Burrell, facing his former club, knocked-on and a penalty for Sale let them clear their lines once more.
Neither side held onto the ball for long as the game descended into aerial ping pong not allowing for any meaningful play to take place.
Saints then won a penalty for offside that they kicked to the corner with time ticking down on the clock.
They were, once more, rebuffed by another monumental defensive shift. Northampton valiantly tried to go from deep but a knock-on ended the game.