Northampton put one foot in the LV= Cup knockout stages thanks to a Chris Mayor-inspired 20-14 win over Sale on Friday.
Northampton put one foot in the LV= Cup knockout stages thanks to a Chris Mayor-inspired 20-14 victory over Sale Sharks at Edgeley Park on Friday.
Jim Mallinder's side are now four points clear at the top of Pool Four with one round of games to come next weekend after a huge defensive effort in the second half saw them hold off their hosts.
Saints were 10-0 up thanks to a try from centre Mayor and a conversion and penalty from fly-half Stephen Myler.
Wing Paul Diggin extended that lead at the start of the second half and Myler added a second penalty, before Charlie Hodgson and Sisa Koyamaibole went over for the hosts as the Sharks launched a spirited fightback.
Sale, boosted by the news that scrum-half Dwayne Peel has signed a new two-year deal at the club, welcomed prop Jack Forster back into their front row with David Seymour at flanker. Wing Ben Cohen, full-back Marika Vakacegu and centre David Bishop started behind the scum.
Northampton were captained by Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe with Dylan Hartley on England duty, but wing Chris Ashton was available despite being included in Martin Johnson's Six Nations squad.
The Heineken Cup quarter-finalists made a fluent start despite missing their international stars and they claimed the game's opening try within four minutes.
Centre Joe Ansbro got his hands through some weak midfield defence and found Ashton on his inside, the wing finding Mayor for the centre to race over against his former club, Myler adding the extras.
Sale's poor start was compounded when they lost Forster to injury, Martin Halsall coming on as his sixth-minute replacement.
The Saints continued to dominate possession, showing good continuity to build a handful of attacks through several phases.
The pressure got to their hosts as hooker Marc Jones was penalised for not rolling away and Myler knocked over a simple penalty to extend the visitors' lead.
But Northampton were dealt a blow when flank Neil Best, who will join Worcester next term, was sin-binned after flooring opposite number Chris Jones as he chased a loose ball.
Sale responded with their best spell of the match as Lewis-Roberts was brought down just short of the line after a fine offload from Fiji number eight Koyamaibole, but the Sharks lost control in the tackle area and the chance was gone.
The home side continued to press but they were let down by some basic handling errors that saw them turn over possession in some promising positions as half-time loomed.
The difference between the teams was highlighted when Northampton scored immediately following the interval.
Sale turned the ball over in their own 22 and it was fed wide to wing Diggin, who stepped inside some poor inside defence to dot down by the posts, Myler's conversion making it 17-0.
But the Sharks finally turned some of their pressure into points in the 55th minute.
After being camped on the Saints line for phase after phase, fly-half Hodgson took it upon himself to twist through a Fernandez Lobbe tackle to score a try which he converted.
Myler then slotted his second penalty to give the away side a 20-7 lead, but Sale continued to have a huge edge in territory and possession although it looked as though a lack of composure and countless handling errors would stymie their fightback.
Koyamaibole then barrelled his way over from a five-metre scrum with five minutes to play to set up an exciting finale, but Northampton held on.
Tries: Hodgson, Koyamailbole
Con: Hodgson 2
Tries: Mayor, Diggin
Con: Myler 2
Pen: Myler 2
Sale: 15 Nick Macleod, 14 Ben Cohen, 13 Jonny Kennedy, 12 David Bishop, 11 David Doherty, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Sisa Koyamaibole, 7 David Seymour, 6 Chris Jones, 5 Sean Cox, 4 Dean Schofield, 3 Jack Forster, 2 Marc Jones, 1 Eifion Roberts.
Replacements: 16 Mahonri Schwalger, 17 Gavin Kerr, 18 Martin Halsall, 19 James Gaskell, 20 Carl Fearns, 21 Chris Leck, 22 Marika Vakacegu, 23 Oriol Ripol.
Northampton: 15 Bruce Reihana, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Joe Ansbro, 12 Chris Mayor, 11 Paul Diggin, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Alan Dickens, 8 Mark Easter, 7 Scott Gray, 6 Neil Best, 5 Juandre Kruger, 4 Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe (c), 3 Euan Murray, 2 Brett Sharman, 1 Brian Mujati.
Replacements: 16 Andy Long, 17 Soane Tonga'uiha, 18 Alex Waller, 19 Owen Giles, 20 Roger Wilson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Barry Everitt, 23 Nick Greenhalgh.
Referee: Nigel Owens