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Gallagher Premiership: Northampton beat Sale to go top as Saracens and Harlequins also win

Northampton go top of the Gallagher Premiership after coming from behind to beat Sale 21-17; Saracens beat Newcastle 37-19 as England forward Ben Earl returned from injury; England fly-half Marcus Smith starred as Harlequins beat Gloucester 32-26

Northampton Saints celebrate comeback win over Sale Sharks
Image: Northampton Saints celebrate comeback win over Sale Sharks

Northampton mounted a stunning fightback to beat Sale 21-17 and moved to the top of the Gallagher Premiership table with a sixth successive victory.

Sale had been 14-0 and 17-7 ahead as they showed real resilience in defence, but the Saints finally found a way to up the tempo and got their rewards.

Alex Mitchell provided a spark as he scored his side's second try before taking a quick tap penalty that forced Sale to infringe, giving Northampton a penalty try and sending Sale prop Asher Opoku-Fordjour into the sin-bin.

The Sharks tried to fight to the end with 14 men, but the Saints showed their strength as they delivered a crucial win in front of a sell-out crowd at the cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens.

Sale had missed a chance to go ahead early on as George Ford sent a long-range penalty wide of the posts.

Frustration was growing for the hosts as the wind and rain swirled around the sold-out Gardens, and the weather prevented Fin Smith from giving Saints the lead as his penalty dropped just short of the posts.

A sucker punch was landed by Sale just before the break as a high ball wreaked havoc and the visitors used their penalty advantage to send Joe Carpenter over for a precious opening try.

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Ford slotted the conversion to make it 7-0 at the break and Northampton were thwarted in their attempts to respond just after the restart as Ollie Sleightholme was bundled into touch.

Sale then rubbed further salt into the wounds as they scored from their first attack of the second period, kicking a penalty to the corner before Luke Cowan-Dickie barged over.

Ford converted to make it 14-0 and it was looking a long way back for Northampton.

But the Saints summoned a response as Rory Hutchinson released the onrushing George Furbank, who flew over the line for a timely try.

Smith converted superbly from the touchline, but Sale responded with a Ford drop-goal to ensure the gap was 10 points with 20 minutes to go.

Saints refused to go quietly and after Sleightholme flew through the middle, the home side kept pushing to allow Mitchell to finish things off.

Smith converted to cut the gap to three points with 14 minutes remaining as the noise and tension entered a different stratosphere.

Northampton were flying forward and they had the lead when awarded a penalty try for Opoku-Fordjour tackling from an offside position following some quick thinking from Mitchell.

There was still time for a Sharks line-out chance in home territory, but it was stolen and Northampton ran the ball clear before booting it out to secure the win.

"We did some decent stuff in the second half. We drove the pace and got a bit more of our game on the pitch," the Northampton director of rugby Phil Dowson said. "Sale are a good side, they shut us down in the first half and we didn't convert any of our pressure.

"They had one opportunity and scored, which put them in the ascendancy at half-time. But we said at half-time that it was absolutely OK and that we had done a lot of good things.

"We weren't upset in any way as a coaching group, we just knew we had a bit more and against good groups, you sometimes have to wear them down and figure out where the space is.

"In the second half, Fin Smith, Alex Mitchell and George Furbank did that. Fair play to the squad for really turning it on in the last 20 minutes. We tried to play a bit quicker in the second half and be more optimistic in terms of how we wanted to play."

Earl returns, Vunipola sent off as Saracens beat Newcastle

England back rower Ben Earl returned from injury as Saracens got back to winning ways in the Gallagher Premiership with a 37-19 victory over bottom side Newcastle Falcons.

It was Earl's first action in nearly two months following a leg injury and the 25-year-old, who had made a big impression during the World Cup earlier in the year, helped his club put recent losses to Northampton and Sale behind them.

The champions remain fifth in the table, but they are set to be without Mako Vunipola for several weeks after he was sent off for a headshot on Bryan Byrne off the final play.

Rory Jennings kicked the first points of the game for Newcastle inside two minutes before a prolonged spell of Saracens pressure eventually led to hooker Theo Dan barging his way over from close range.

Manu Vunipola missed the conversion and Falcons were next to strike when, from a loose pass in his own team's 22, Adam Radwan hacked the ball clear on two occasions before his searing pace allowed him to follow up and go clear.

Jennings added the extras and then banged over a penalty from just over 40 metres soon after to increase the visitors' lead to 13-5.

Mano Vunipola quickly narrowed the gap to five points with a penalty of his own, but the hosts had a let-off when a Iwan Stephens 'try' on the counter was ruled out for a knock-on by Guy Pepper just before the openside hacked clear.

Within a minute, Sarries scrum-half Ivan van Zyl struck after quickly taking a penalty for a high tackle, and Mano Vunipola's conversion gave his side the lead, one they retained after Jennings sent a shot from his own half wide.

The Falcons fly-half did kick his side in front again with his third penalty, soon after Olly Hartley had been denied a score due to a forward pass by Van Zyl.

But the visitors could not hold on until the break as Juan Martin Gonzalez dummied before gliding over off the final play of the first half.

It meant Saracens turned around 22-16 ahead, with Mano Vunipola and Jennings then exchanging penalties in the early stages of the second half to keep the gap at six points.

The inevitable raft of replacements, coupled with the worsening conditions, hurt the game's flow, but Saracens had their bonus point after 64 minutes when they were awarded a penalty try as a driving maul heading for the Newcastle line was collapsed.

Falcons captain Callum Chick was sent to the sin bin as a result and he was still off the field by the time Mako Vunipola squeezed his way over before his late red card took some of the shine off for Saracens.

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall was hopeful that Vunipola could be given a reprieve by the tribunal that will follow.

"On Mako's red card, we'll see because he was part of a double-tackle," McCall said.

"He came in second, the primary tackler affected the body height of the ball carrier, so we'll see what the panel have to say in a couple of days' time.

"In terms of the performance, into a very strong wind I think we had 90 per cent of possession and territory in the first half and probably did a lot of good things to achieve that.

Smith Stars as Harlequins see off Gloucester

Harlequins ended 2023 in style by dispatching struggling Gloucester 32-26 at Twickenham to keep them in firm contention for the Gallagher Premiership play-offs.

A crowd of 75,000 watched Quins conjure five tries despite slippery conditions - but injuries to Joe Marler and Dino Lamb took some of the shine off their sixth win in 10 league matches.

From the moment outstanding wing Nick David went over in the eighth minute they led opponents who fell to an eighth successive Premiership league defeat, equalling their worst ever losing run in the competition.

Only Newcastle sit below Gloucester in the table but they defied their lowly position to subject Quins to an anxious finish with two late tries reducing the deficit to six points.

Marcus Smith dazzled on occasion and was named man of the match, but captain Alex Dombrandt was also influential in ensuring the club's annual festive party at Twickenham went off as planned.

A pre-match downpour failed to douse Quins' ambition as they struck early when a quickly-taken penalty sent Danny Care shuttling across the field until David arrived to straighten and score.

Gloucester hit back with a well worked try for Adam Hastings but they then produced successive knock-ons in the wet conditions, inviting pressure and contributing to their line being breached twice in four minutes.

David added his second after a dummy enabled Smith to accelerate into space and supply his wing the scoring pass, in the process exposing the vulnerability of the visiting defence.

Gloucester were also slow to react with a chip off the outside of Care's boot and Domnbrandt punished the mistake by gathering and touching down.

In contrast to their leaky defence, Gloucester were sharp in attack and it took a last-gap tackle by Oscar Beard to prevent Santiago Carreras from scoring in the left corner.

A line-out maul was then stopped inches short and the pressure on Quins' whitewash evaporated, allowing them to drive downfield where Dombrandt bounced off a challenge from Zach Mercer, one of his rivals for the England number eight jersey.

The home side's fourth try was a bitter-sweet experience for Lamb, who marauded over after being given an opportunity by slick handling only to injure an arm in the act of scoring.

Gloucester were determined to go down fighting and so over went George McGuigan from close range, leaving his side just 10 points behind.

The door appeared to have been slammed shut on their comeback just three minutes later when strong carries from Andre Esterhuizen and Joe Launchbury propelled Quins forward until Care exploited an absent ruck defence to touch down.

David's superb game continued with a try-saving tackle on Ollie Thorley but replacement wing Jonny May succeeded where Thorley failed as the match entered the final 10 minutes.

Gloucester had their tails up and another attack ended in a penalty try but the clock ran out on their final throw of the dice.

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