Northampton Saints cruised into the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-finals, beating Sale Sharks 28-14 last night (Thursday).
Sale had led thanks to a Henry Thomas try, before a brace from Ben Nutley, and tries from Sam Dickinson and Ben Foden gave the Saints a 28-7 lead at half-time.
Sale pulled one back through Viliami Fihaki to set up a nervy last few minutes, but the Saints held on for the victory at the AJ Bell Stadium.
Despite Northampton being the better side in the opening minutes, it was Sale who got the first points of the evening on the board.
Nick Macleod booted the ball out for a lineout, down near the Saints’ touchline. From the throw, the Sharks drove forward before offloading to Thomas to dive over the line.
The man who started the move, fly-half Macleod, converted to give Sale a 7-0 lead.
Yet Northampton did not slow down their aggressive attack, getting a try of their own on the 18th minute, with Nutley touching down.
Similar to Sale’s try, Jim Mallinder's side pushed from the lineout before the open-side flanker peeled off the back and dived over.
Will Hooley, who only scored one from four conversions in the Saints’ last game against Leicester Tigers, shot between the sticks to level the score.
With a home semi-final granted to the victor, tensions were rising as Sale captain James Gaskell and Northampton tight-head prop Tom Mercey scraped after the Sharks conceded a penalty.
And it was straight from that penalty where the visitors took the lead for the first time in the game. Like their first try, Saints drove from the penalty towards the line, leaving Dickinson with the easy task to place the ball down. Hooley added the extras to make it 14-7.
But the try of the first half came just four minutes later, as a brilliant pass from Dickson to Ken Pisi allowed the winger to charge forward before being taken down.
From the tackle, Saints passed across to Hooley, who tapped the ball towards the line for Foden to pick up and touch down.
And the half wasn’t over there, with Sale’s try scorer, Thomas, being shown a yellow card by referee Romain Poite. He was sent to the sin bin for ten minutes, and Saints made them pay.
From the resulting penalty, Saints once again worked the ball into the corner, with Nutley getting his second try from the lineout. Hooley made it four goals from four kicks to send Northampton 28-7 up at half-time.
Sale came out in the second period, much like they were in the first 10 minutes of the game, playing with a solid defence and resilience to hold off the Northampton waves of attack.
Whilst the Sharks were in dire need of tries to get back on track, it was the Saints who got the crowd’s hearts racing, as Faatonia Autagavaia darted inside from the left wing, passing four Sale players before being brought down by lock Andrei Ostrikov.
With just six minutes remaining, the Sharks brought the score back to within just 14 points, with Fihaki touching down after driving their maul from the lineout.
And Northampton’s James Craig even spent the last three minutes of the match in the sin bin after a cynical foul.
But the Saints held on for victory, seeing them go through to the last four in the Cup, where they will face either Stade Français or Harlequins at Franklin’s Gardens later this month.
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