Tom Vickers' Northampton Saints v Sale Sharks preview
Fixture: Northampton Saints v Sale Sharks (Aviva Premiership - round 11)
Date and kick-off time: Friday, December 23, 2016, 7.45pm)
Venue: Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton
Saints: Foden; K Pisi, Burrell, Hanrahan, Estelles; Myler, Groom; A Waller, Haywood, Brookes; Lawes, Day; Wood (c), Harrison, Picamoles.
Replacements: Clare, E Waller, Hill, Ratuniyarawa, Gibson, Kessell, Wilson, Tuitavake.
Sale Sharks: Haley; Solomona, James, Leota, Charnley; MacGinty, Phillips; Harrison, Webber, Aulika; Evans, Ostrikov; Neild, Lund (c), Ioane.
Replacements: Briggs, Flynn, Longbottom, Beaumont, Mills, Seymour, Mitchell, Arscott.
Outs: Saints: Tom Stephenson (broken leg), Dylan Hartley (suspended - week two of six), George Pisi (shoulder), George North (concussion)
Referee: Greg Garner
Most recent meeting: Saturday, March 12, 2016: Saints 26 Sale Sharks 11 (Aviva Premiership)
Tom’s preview: A strange feeling of positivity has suddenly washed over Saints this week.
Strange because the club go into Friday’s game against Sale Sharks on the back of a four-match losing streak.
Strange because Saints were annihilated in their most recent fixture, being destroyed 60-13 by Leinster in Dublin.
And strange because there have been myriad issues, not least the George North saga and Dylan Hartley’s six-week ban, to deal with.
But with the North situation now resolved - Saints will face no sanctions for their handling of his head injury - there is a feeling that the tide is starting to turn.
Of course, the proof will be in the pre-Christmas pudding.
Lose to a Sale side who have suffered defeat in their past six matches and not won in Northampton since May, 2006, then things will come crushing down.
The dark clouds, some of which were removed from the skies above the Gardens this week, will whip up a tempest.
But prior to the game, there is that palpable sense of positivity.
Jim Mallinder showed as much during his pre-match press conference on Tuesday.
He most likely knew that Saints would not be sanctioned for the North incident and that they would not be punished for making 10 changes to their team for last Saturday’s game.
He also knew that the Wanderers had produced a strong performance in their 20-11 win against local rivals Leicester on Monday night.
And he also knew that he was able to welcome back a host of fresh international players who did not have to suffer at the Aviva Stadium last weekend.
But Mallinder will also know that all of that will mean nothing if Friday’s game produces anything less than a win.
In fact, there is real pressure on Saints to triumph in their next three matches, with a trip to Gloucester and a home game against bottom side Bristol beckoning.
This is their chance to end the year well and then start 2017 in style.
Whether they are capable of it, remains to be seen.
Supporters will be sceptical until they see their side produce a purple patch packed with impressive performances.
There haven’t been many of them at the Gardens during recent times.
But this week, there is just a hint that Saints may be set to give their supporters some much-needed festive cheer.
Tom’s prediction: Saints 25 Sale 16