Sale Sharks survived a storming second-half comeback by Northampton to cement their position as the team to beat in the Guinness Premiership championship play-off.
A dominant Sale side looked home and dry when they led 26-3 in the second half but they were forced to rally after Saints hit back to lead 27-26.
In the end a pulsating match all hinged on a last-minute penalty from Northampton fullback Bruce Reihana but he fell short with his 35-metre kick.
With Sale already certain of top spot in the league and a home semi-final for the play-off, and Northampton having also secured their place in Europe’s premier cup composition for next season there was, ostensibly, little at stake.
But both sides played as though their lives depended on it as they served up a thrilling finale to the league season.
The rival packs tore into each other from the first whistle as they tried to establish superiority.
Saints survived an early battering, in which Sale’s juggernaut caused a rolling maul wide across their line but failed to ground the ball, to take the lead with Reihana’s opening 13th minute penalty.
Sale’s bold approach of going for the corner instead of kicking their penalties paid off at the third attempt when Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe went over in the 21st minute.
Seven minutes later scrum half Ben Foden capitalised on a turnover, picking up the loose ball and exploiting a gaping defensive hole past four Northampton players on his way to the line.
Sale scored their third try in an 11th minute spell when England World Cup winner Jason Robinson – badly shaken by a crunching tackle from John Rudd minutes earlier – recovered to split the Saints defence wide open.
His diagonal run took him past three opponents to provide winger Steve Hanley with a simple run-in try.
The half-time withdrawal of England fly half Charlie Hodgson, who had landed two first-half conversions, Scotland skipper Jason White and Andy Titterell, who had taken a heavy knock in the first half, failed to stop Sale.
Another devastating burst from the live-wire Froden presented Hodgson’s replacement Valentin Courrenc with a try which the Frenchman converted himself.
However, Northampton then launched an inspired revival which produced three tries in a six-minutes hell.
Their forwards drove inspirational former All Blacks fly half Carlos Spencer over for the first try in the 52 minute.
Saints then struck twice more while Robinson was in the sin bin after denying Spencer a possible second try by grabbing his legs as he tried to chase a loose ball near the Sharks line.
Northampton punished them immediately, whitting the ball along the line for Reihana to touch down – and land his second conversion – and they broke the depleted Sale defence again for number eight Daniel Browne to cross in the left-hand corner.
Robinson failed to prevent Northampton from striking again when the mercurial Spencer provided the final pass to send centre Dave Quinlan in for his first try for the club in the 69th minute.
Reihana again failed with the conversion and Sale showed the resolve of league winners to rally and force their way back in front.
Courrenc’s penalty put them 29-27 ahead and the Frenchman was also on target with the conversion after right-wing Oriol Ripol raced in for their fifth try to stretch their advantage to 36-27.
Still Northampton refused to concede defeat, cutting the deficit to two points with a late try from England winger Ben Cohen, which Reihana converted, but the New Zealander failed agonisingly with the final-minute penalty shot which could have won the match.