Credit; PA Images

Sale Sharks begin a defining phase in their season on Saturday as they welcome Bristol Bears to the AJ Bell Stadium.

Steve Diamond’s side will take on Gloucester and Saracens following their pre-Christmas clash with the West County outfit, three games that will decide whether they can push for a place in the top six or have a relegation dogfight on their hands.

Sale lost their perfect record in the European Challenge Cup last weekend, losing 17-14 to Bordeaux. The defeat was also the clubs first home loss since September and a disappointing result considering they had scored 50 points against the same opposition the week before.

However, in the last block of Premiership fixtures Sale did earn a losing bonus point against Saracens, beat Northampton and draw at the Rec against Bath.

Three results which mean they currently occupy 11th in the league, but within touching distance of a number of teams above them in the table.

Bristol, promoted from the Championship last season, have enjoyed a reasonable start to the season under Pat Lam.

They hammered Leicester Tigers 41-10 in their last Premiership game, and also beat French side La Rochelle 13-3 last weekend, so are in good form.

They are four places and two points ahead of Sale, but with the Premiership table so tight at the bottom, a win for the Sharks will likely see them climb above Saturday’s opponents.

James O’Connor returns to the Sale team in the centre, while Tom Curry starts at openside flanker with Jean-Luc du Preez moving to number eight.

The entire front row has also been changed from last week’s loss. Ross Harrison, Rob Webber and WillGriff John all start but Tom Bristow does take his place on the bench, despite his red card against Bordeaux.

Bristol make two changes from their last Premiership match, Chris Vui is back in the second row after injury, and Jack Lam starts at number eight.

Ahead of the match, Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond told the club website:

“Pat Lam will bring his team to Salford in a very good position in the league.

“We’ll have to be at our very best to get something out of the game. We’ve had a reasonable run of form recently, but we know how difficult the Gallagher Premiership is.”

Sale Sharks: 15. Chris Ashton; 14. Denny Solomona, 13. Sam James, 12. James O’Connor, 11. Byron McGuigan; 10. Rob du Preez 9. Faf de Klerk; 1. Ross Harrison, 2. Rob Webber, 3. WillGriff John, 4. Josh Beaumont, 5. James Phillips, 6. Jono Ross (capt), 7. Tom Curry, 8. Jean-Luc du Preez.

Replacements: 16. Curtis Langdon, 17. Tom Bristow, 18. Joe Jones, 19. Bryn Evans, 20. Josh Strauss, 21. Ben Curry, 22. Will Cliff, 23. Luke James.

Bristol Bears: 15. Charles Piutau; 14. Luke Morahan, 13. Will Hurrell, 12. Siale Piutau (co-capt), 11. Alapati Leiua; 10. Ian Madigan 9. Harry Randall; 1. Yann Thomas, 2. Harry Thacker, 3. John Afoa, 4. Chris Vui, 5. Aly Muldowney, 6. Steve Luatua (co-capt), 7. George Smith, 8. Jack Lam.

Replacements: 16. Tom Lindsay, 17. Jake Woolmore, 18. Lewis Thiede, 19. Joe Joyce, 20. Dan Thomas, 21. Andy Uren, 22. Callum Sheedy, 23. Piers O’Conor.

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