Bristol ground out a precious first-ever win at Edgeley Park to complete a magnificent double over reigning champions Sale and maintain their lead at the top of the GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP.
While the season gets even better for Bristol, the Sharks’ hopes of retaining their crown are fast slipping away after a third consecutive defeat compounded a miserable holiday period which leaves them trailing the leaders by 13 points.
Decimated by injuries, Sale nevertheless controlled much of the game but lacked the killer touch against the tough-tackling leaders, who became only the second team to win at Edgeley Park this season.
Sale showed more promise and enjoyed the territorial advantage in an attritional first half played in clinging mud but failed to turn their pressure into points.
In particular, they were hampered by some poor decision-making from fly-half Daniel Larrechea while Bristol easily contained the threat of Jason Robinson.
The champions went ahead on 26 minutes when Larrechea slotted a 30-metre penalty after the visitors were caught offside but his opposite number David Hill levelled the scores four minutes later when Sale were punished for collapsing the scrum.
The Manchester side dominated much of the second half as their pack began to get on top, with Bristol feeling the early loss of flanker Joe El Abd with a leg injury.
Julian Martin Fernandez Lobbe was outstanding while a rare clean break by Magnus Lund set up the position for a Robinson drop-goal attempt but his kick barely got off the ground and Sale had a let-off when Bristol winger David Lemi dropped the ball in a promising position.
Sale were then reduced to 14 men on 55 minutes when hooker Sebastien Bruno was shown the yellow card for using his elbow on Bristol substitute Matt Salter, but the visitors were unable to capitalise.
The home side went ahead on 66 minutes when Larrechea landed a second penalty but the lead lasted just two minutes as Bristol struck the decisive blow.
Robinson was forced to concede a five-metre scrum and Bristol number eight Dan Ward-Smith went through a gaping hole in the home defence straight from the heel for the only try of the game.
Hill, who kicked all his side’s points in Bristol’s 15-9 win at the Memorial Stadium in November, added the conversion to make it 10-6 and, when Larrechea was off-target for the first time with a penalty on 70 minutes, it was a sure sign that the match was drifting away from the champions.
Sale launched a furious late onslaught in which the Bristol defence was under almost constant siege but, despite nine minutes of added time, they were unable to make the breakthrough.