A 73rd minute penalty from England fly-half George Ford helped Sale Sharks edge out Bath 11-9 in the top-of-the-table Premiership clash on Friday.
The England international landed a mid-range penalty with just seven minutes to go as the Sharks eventually broke down a stubborn Bath team to secure their sixth win of the season.
Sale‘s Jonny Hill scored the only try of a tight game at Salford Stadium, however three penalties from Finn Russell looked to nick the points for Bath in an attritional affair.
The visitors’ defence almost did enough to bag what would have been a fine away win, with a superb 10-minute defensive stand inside their own 22 the highlight, before Ford stepped up to clinch a Sale win.
Bath started strongly and Sale’s lack of discipline cost them too many penalties, which Russell feasted on.
The Scotland international was subdued with ball-in-hand on a night where kicking was king, but he was excellent from the tee and punished three Sale errors in the first half.
The hosts appeared to be winning the territory battle and made a crucial breakthrough after bagging a penalty at the scrum and going for the corner.
At the second lineout attempt, the maul was set and Hill broke off to power over the line, leaving the half-time score with Bath leading 9-5.
After the break, Sale got off to a cracking start as they turned the screw, Gus Warr threaded a smart kick in behind the Bath defence and into touch.
Luke Cowan-Dickie performed a jackal over the ball to win a penalty for not releasing and Ford stepped up to knock over the penalty kick – closing the gap to a single point.
Sale’s backs struggled to penetrate the visiting defence and so they relied on Ford’s kicking game for territory. But Russell was as equally street-smart and kept Bath out of harm’s way in a match for the purist.
Bath introduced a series of super substitutes as head coach Johann van Graan released a trio of top-class internationals from his bench in hooker Tom Dunn, scrum-half Ben Spencer and centre Cam Redpath in an attempt to swing the momentum back into their favour.
But in the final few minutes, Ford stepped up and knocked over the 37m effort from just to the right of the uprights for Sharks to go ahead and win on home ground.
Bath attempted to wrestle back the lead but Sale kept them at arm’s length, with Ford cleverly kicking the ball downfield and masterminding the hosts’ defence.
This clash between two of the Premiership’s most attack-minded teams lived up to the billing, with both scoring five tries, but it was Saints who were able to bounce back from defeat at Leicester last week and inflict on Quins a second straight loss.
Playing a big part in that was academy product Sleightholme, who was making a first league start since January after concussion and hamstring issues checked his progress for many months.
Cadan Murley was making his first appearance of the campaign for Harlequins and it took the Premiership’s top try-scorer last season just five minutes to get back in the groove when he crashed over from Danny Care’s pass.
Northampton hit back within four minutes when Sleightholme burst through after quick hands by Sam Matavesi and Fraser Dingwall following a line-out.
George Furbank converted to put the hosts 7-5 ahead, a lead preserved by excellent work at the breakdown by Courtney Lawes close to his own line after a threatening carry by Andre Esterhuizen.
But Harlequins were back ahead in the 28th minute when hooker Jack Walker scored off the back of a driving maul, with Marcus Smith adding the extras.
Again, however, their lead did not last long and this time it was of their own making as a loose ball from an overthrown line-out in their own 22 led to Tom Pearson putting Saints captain Lewis Ludlam through to score.
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Furbank’s conversion put the hosts ahead once more and their lead was extended to 21-12 at half-time thanks to an opportunistic try from Alex Mitchell after a Quins scrum went awry.
A penalty from Furbank within two minutes of the restart drew the gap out to 12 points, but Harlequins were quickly back in the picture.
Tyrone Green’s offload allowed the visitors to work a big overlap on the right, with Smith and Esterhuizen combining to put lock George Hammond in at the corner, Smith converting superbly from the touchline.
But Saints restored some breathing space after 62 minutes when Furbank dummied before advancing and sending Alex Coles under the posts, even if the second-row did need two attempts to fully gather.
Once again, Quins hauled themselves back within five points when Will Evans plunged over from close range with 11 minutes left.
Saints looked to have finally closed the game out when George Hendy timed his pass to send Sleightholme sliding in for his second.
But Nathan Jibulu’s close-range score with just under a minute left ensured an enthralling battle remained in the balance right to the last.