Northampton Saints v Sale Sharks: Tom Vickers' big match preview
Fixture: Northampton Saints v Sale Sharks
Competition: Gallagher Premiership (round 13)
Venue: Franklin's Gardens, Northampton
Date and kick-off time: Saturday, March 13, 2021, 2.45pm
Weather: 8c, mostly cloudy
Live television coverage: BT Sport Extra 3
Referee: Matthew Carley
Saints: Furbank; Freeman, Dingwall, Francis, Sleightholme; Grayson, James; Waller (cc), Marshall, Painter; Moon, Coles; Wood, Ludlam (cc), Harrison.
Replacements: Haywood, Auterac, Hill, Ratuniyarawa, Tonks, Taylor, Hutchinson, Mallinder.
Sale Sharks: Hammersley; McGuigan, S James, Hill, Reed; MacGinty, De Klerk; Harrison, van der Merwe, John; Wiese, De Jager, JL du Preez, Ross (c), D du Preez.
Replacements: Langdon, Rodd, Oosthuizen, Beaumont, Dugdale, Quirke, R du Preez, Roebuck.
Outs: Saints: Dan Biggar, Alex Mitchell, David Ribbans (all international duty), Matt Proctor (calf), Nick Isiekwe (concussion), Shaun Adendorff (knee), Owen Franks (foot), Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi (Achilles), Courtney Lawes (pectoral), Kayde Sylvester (Achilles)
Most recent meeting: Friday, November 20, 2020: Sale Sharks 32 Saints 23 (Gallagher Premiership)
Tom's preview: Saints face the side against who it all started this Saturday, giving a chance to reflect on the journey so far.
Chris Boyd's men were beaten by Sale Sharks on Gallagher Premiership opening night back in November, failing to seize their victory chance after Harry Mallinder's penalty gave them late hope.
And that has become a bit of a theme of the campaign so far, with Saints left to rue so many games that have got away late on.
Of course, they have won their fair share, too, gritting their teeth to claim narrow victories against Gloucester, Wasps and Exeter in 2021.
But they are well aware that their league standing could be so much better than fifth.
Not only were the edged out on opening night at the AJ Bell Stadium, they conceded a last-gasp penalty to lose at Bristol Bears in their next away game.
And in the past two weeks, they have been left searching for answers as to why matches against Bath and Harlequins evaded their grasp.
Against Bath, Saints flew into a 19-3 lead and had a host of second-half opportunities not only to bag the win, but maximum points.
In the end, they finished with just a losing bonus point to show for their efforts as they slipped to a 23-22 defeat.
And then at Harlequins last weekend, the hosts were reduced to 13 men late on, seemingly opening the door for Saints to score their fourth try and perhaps mount a victory bid from 30-19 behind.
But it never materialised and they eventually conceded from the final play of the game to lose 37-19, leaving the Twickenham Stoop with nothing.
If Saints are to harbour any realistic hopes of finishing in the top four this season, they have to turn near misses into regular hits, especially against two play-off rivals in as many weeks.
Sale and Bristol will provide stern tests for a Saints side who have won just one home league game since 2020 began.
Yes, that's one home league win in 15 months, a sobering record for a side that was traditionally so proud of its Franklin's Gardens record.
It has not been the toughest of places to go for opposition sides in recent times.
And Saints know they have to change that immediately.
It won't be easy against play-off contenders in the next two weeks.
But if Saints want to be anywhere near them come the end of the campaign, they will have to beat them now.
Tom's prediction: Sale are a formidable side these days and with the players they have available they may just be a bit too powerful for Saints to handle. Saints 20 Sale 25.