Varndell stars as resurgent Bristol hit back to deepen Sale's woes
Tom Varndell equalled Mark Cueto's Aviva Premiership try-scoring record as Bristol superbly came from behind to defeat Sale Sharks 24-23 at the AJ Bell Stadium.
Despite a slow start, Sale hit their straps to take a 15-0 lead through a penalty try and Denny Solomona's touchdown, while James Mitchell added five points from the tee.
But the visitors managed to reduce the arrears by the interval via Jason Woodward's three-pointer and Varndell's converted score. Mitchell's penalty and Johnny Leota's score looked to have taken the Sharks clear but tries from Rhodri Williams and Max Crumpton gave Bristol the win.
After a dreadful start to the season, which saw them lose their first 10 Premiership matches, Bristol have been rejuvenated over recent weeks.
Successive victories against Pau in the European Challenge Cup were followed by another triumph, this time domestically, versus Worcester Warriors at Ashton Gate.
That triumph, alongside this win, brings them closer to those above them, including Sale, who have now lost their last eight matches in all competitions.
Bristol opened the brighter and kept possession confidently in the initial exchanges, but they were met by a solid Sale rearguard. It eventually forced a turnover and that allowed the hosts to create an opportunity when Mike Haley's neat grubber was almost claimed by Josh Charnley.
Woodward did well to get there in front of the former rugby league winger but, with Charnley bearing down on the Bristol wing, he had to dot the ball down and give the Sharks a five-metre scrum.
That is where the pressure began and, after a series of infringements in the set-piece, prop Ryan Bevington was sin-binned. Steve Diamond's men continued with the same tactic and eventually referee Ian Tempest had little option but to award the penalty try.
After that score the confidence seemed to return to the home side and they were soon over for a second time through Solomona, who touched down for his second try in two games.
A penalty from Mitchell extended their advantage as they moved 15-0 in front, but Mark Tainton's outfit managed to get themselves back into the contest in the final seven minutes of the half.
Firstly, Woodward kicked a three-pointer before the full-back broke through some flimsy tackling to send Varndell over for the record-equalling try.
To Sale's credit, they responded well to that setback and controlled the early exchanges of the second period, winning a penalty which Mitchell converted.
The hosts then laid siege to the opposition line and, with their maul working well, Bristol brought it down illegally and Dan Tuohy was subsequently yellow carded.
Once again, the Sharks went to the corner and this time they managed to barge across the whitewash via Leota.
With Bristol down to 14 and the Manchester team 13 points clear that could have been game over but a piece of magic by Varndell kept them in contention.
He sprinted down the left, evading Andrei Ostrikov's attempted tackle in the process, and passed to Williams who had the simple task of touching down.
Bristol now had the momentum and, after Rob Webber had been yellow carded for collapsing the maul, Crumpton benefited from the forwards' excellent work to finish in the corner.
Woodward had a difficult kick out wide but he superbly converted as they went away with an outstanding victory.