Bristol Sonics’ 2016 season came to an abrupt end on Saturday, as they lost 42-22 to Swindon St George in the West of England League semi-final.
The Sonics headed into the game in fine form, but were brushed aside by an inspired Swindon side who never took a backwards step. It was a rare victory for the men from Wiltshire over their M4 corridor rivals, and saw them deservedly book a place in next Saturday’s West of England Grand Final at Chippenham RFC.
Bristol were simply outplayed and outfought by the home side, who played with mostly controlled aggression and great skill to triumph in an absorbing, high intensity contest at Supermarine RFC in Swindon. The Sonics were lacking a little firepower up front, and with only one recognised forward on the interchange bench, found it tough going against a Swindon side who were able to roll fresh forwards on and off at will.
The Sonics had arrived in Swindon in confident mood, but began the game badly. An early error handed possession to the home side, who scored on their first set of six tackles. The ball was moved wide to speedy winger Ash Perry, who seared past his opposite number and dived over between the sticks, stand-off Tomley converting. Five minutes later, Swindon doubled their lead, veteran prop forward RIchard White – who could have later been sent-off for a head-butt on Sonics captain Alex Potts, which was unfortunately missed by the referee – barging through some weak tackles. Tomley again added the extras.
While Bristol began to get back into the game after this nightmare start, they fell further behind after 19 minutes when Sam Williams crossed the whitewash, Tomley’s third successful conversion making it 18-0.
The Sonics were struggling to make ground, and were guilty of dropping passes and missing key tackles. Away supporters finally got something to cheer on 25 minutes, when top try scorer George Burnie collected an offload from skipper Alex Potts and slid over. Player/coach Dom Swann nailed the conversion, and suddenly Bristol began playing with a little more confidence. A fine last tackle play from Dom Swann on 31 minutes opened up the space for winger Blake Knowlson to run back on the inside and dive over the try line. When Swann’s conversion attempt sailed over, it appeared Bristol were finally back in business.
Swindon, though, were in no mood to throw away their best chance yet of beating the Sonics to a Grand Final spot. Two tries in the closing five minutes of the half from Ash Perry and Liam Rowe – both converted by Tomley – restored their 18-point advantage and a daunting 30-12 half-time lead.
The Sonics improved defensively in the opening period of the second half, but were still struggling to consistently break down Swindon’s well organised defence. With 22 minutes remaining Bristol finally made the breakthrough, winger Joe Uren – brother of former Sonic Jack Uren, now starring for the University of Gloucestertshire All Golds in Kingstone Press Championship League One – sliding over in the corner for a try that Swann sadly couldn’t convert.
With 12 minutes remaining, the Sonics scored again, with George Burnie powering through to pick up his 12th try in five appearances for Bristol this season. Swann’s calm conversion reduced the arrears to 10 points.
Swindon were still working hard, but there was at least a glimmer of hope for Bristol to hold onto. They would require two scores – at least one converted – in the final 10 minutes to get out of jail and book their place in the Grand Final.
Bristol threw everything at the home side, but a combination of Sonics errors and superb Swindon defence thwarted their attempts. With just three minutes remaining, Sam Williams grabbed his second score of the afternoon, converted by Tomley, to seal victory. A converted try on the final whistle simply rubbed salt into the wounds of Bristol’s exhausted and shell shocked players.
Bristol Sonics captain Alex Potts said: “We’re all absolutely gutted by that result. We came into the game in decent form, and although we could have done with a few more forwards on the bench, the side we had out was pretty good. In the end, we were simply outplayed. We missed far too many tackles in the first half, and by the time we sorted that out in the second half, we’d given ourselves far too much to do. We never really clicked in attack, bar a few good moves that ended in tries, and made far too many errors. We’ve perhaps not done ourselves justice, but full credit should go to Swindon – they were by far and away the better side on the day and fully deserved their victory. Good luck to them in the final – it would be nice to see them win the title after the excellent season they’ve had.”
Bristol Sonics player/coach Dom Swann said: “In hindsight, I think some of our victories this season were a bit too easy, and papered over the cracks that were appearing. We paid the price for not having a settled side, not training together enough, and making far too many individual and collective errors. We were a little surprised at how much better Swindon were than when we last played them, 12 months ago, but that’s no excuse – we came here expecting a very tough game, and that’s what we got. On the day we were simply not good enough. It’s a disappointing way to end our season, but we should be proud of what we achieved. We beat everyone else in our half of the draw, bar Portsmouth, comfortably, played some good rugby and got decent team spirit going. Hopefully we can build on this next season and make amends for missing this great opportunity to compete for silverware. We can use that loss as motivation during the long off-season break.”