Northampton Saints climbed to the top of the Aviva Premiership with a hard-fought 19-10 victory over Sale Sharks at Edgeley Park on Friday night.
Jamie Elliott enjoyed a fairytale start to his top-flight career by scoring one try and creating another. The 18-year-old marked his Premiership debut with a clever assist for Greig Tonks' 55th-minute score and a try of his own five minutes from time.
Sale's desire could not be faulted and they scored the only try of the first half thanks to an exhilarating breakaway effort from former Saints wing Ben Cohen. However, three penalties from Stephen Myler put Northampton 9-7 ahead at the break and Tonks' superbly-executed try gave them further breathing space before Elliott's late second.
It was a fifth defeat in eight outings for Sale, but Northampton - minus England quartet Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes - claimed their seventh Premiership victory of the season.
They could have led inside the opening minute but Myler was off target with a long-range penalty attempt. Four minutes later he made no mistake from inside the hosts' 22, but the initial response from Sale was encouraging.
They began to pin their opponents back towards their own line but some stout defending from Northampton kept them at bay. As the first half progressed, Saints began to look increasingly dangerous with ball in hand and they began to build up a head of steam.
Genuine try-scoring opportunities remained scarce until Sale scored against the run of play in the 25th minute thanks to a bad mistake from Tom Wood. The Northampton flanker gifted Sale possession just inside his own half and a swift pass out to Cohen allowed the former England wing to scamper clear down the right flank.
Nick Macleod kicked the conversion from the touchline, but the visitors came back strongly and it was Sale's turn to defend doggedly, repelling wave after wave of attack to keep their line intact. Their determination was summed up perfectly when debutant Iain Thornley, 19, hauled down Tonks with a superb saving tackle.
Moments later, Dwayne Peel charged down a kick, raced after the ball and then hauled a Northampton defender into touch. However, Myler booted two penalties shortly before the break to edge his side 9-7 ahead.
Myler missed a penalty in the 47th minute but eight minutes later he reaffirmed his class with a delightful flighted kick into the right corner. Elliott caught the ball and showed intelligence to usher the supporting Tonks over from close range.
Myler could not convert and Macleod missed two penalties before succeeding with another attempt in the 70th minute to set up a grandstand finish.
However, Elliott found space to burrow his way over in the right corner in the 75th minute and, although Myler missed the conversion, it was a fine night's work for Northampton, while Sale failed to collect so much as a losing bonus point.