Bristol Sonics dug deep to battle past Oxford Cavaliers 32-16 at Landseer Avenue on Saturday, in the process all but guaranteeing a place in the end of season West of England League play-offs.
The victory was enough to keep the Sonics on top of the West of England League Pool A table, ahead of South Coast rivals U.S Portsmouth Navy Seahawks on points difference. Both sides are four points ahead of Oxford with two games remaining. As the Cavaliers and Seahawks meet next week in Oxford, the Sonics are now guaranteed to finish in the top two, this securing a play-off semi-final against one of the top teams from Pool B of the West of England League (most likely Cheltenham, Swindon or Southampton).
Bristol were made to work hard for the win on Saturday, with Oxford – who fielded a trio of former Sonics players, including brothers Dan and Harry Brooker – showing the solid defence and great organisation that has made them one of the form teams in the division.
The Sonics started brightly and opened the scoring after four minutes, skipper Alex Potts sliding in under the posts. Player/coach Dom Swann made no mistake with the conversion, meaning the Sonics were 6-0 up. The lead lasted until the 17th minute, when Dan Brooker ghosted over to haunt his former club. He kicked the resultant conversion to rub salt into the wound.
10 minutes later the pendulum swung back towards the home side, with veteran Swann crossing the whitewash for a try he could not convert. Then, shortly before the interval, utility back James Potts joined his brother on the scoresheet after finishing off a fine move. At the interval, Bristol held an eight-point lead – meaning Oxford would have to score twice to overtake them – and would have been happy with the 14-6 scoreline.
Four minutes into the second period, Bristol extended their lead when substitute Mike Gaston dived over near the posts, Swann slotting over the conversion with ease. It triggered an impressive response from the visitors, who spent much of the next 15 minutes hammering away at the Sonics line. Bristol, whose defence has improved a lot since they famously lost 69-56 to Portsmouth on the opening day of the season, scrambled superbly to hold Oxford at bay.
Like all good sides, the Sonics were quickly able to turn defence into attack, and take the few chances that came their way. Home fans were relieved when Tom McIntosh scored a fine try, converted by Swann, to cap a fine first appearance for Bristol. Oxford quickly struck back though a try from Nick Arnell, but any hope of a famous comeback was snuffed out when speedy Sonics full-back Jonny Mawer sprinted away to score a try which Swann expertly converted.
Oxford grabbed some consolation with a well-worked try, finished by Josh Stanfield-Smith. Dan Brooker’s neat conversion was the last kick of the game.
Bristol Sonics player/coach Dom Swann said: “I’m immensely proud of the effort the lads put in today, and delighted with the result. We went into the game knowing that we’d have to defend well and take our chances, and we did just that. There are still areas of our game we need to work on, and having secured a play-off spot we can do just that in the two remaining league games. However, we’re determined to finish top of the table, so our first priority needs to be to beat Bath Romans at their place next Saturday. I’d also like to put on record our thanks to former Chairman and club founder Phil Cole, who stepped in to referee at the last minute when the League couldn’t provide any match officials. He did a superb job and both sides were happy with the way he handled the game.”
Bristol Sonics head to Corsham RFC next Saturday, where they face their closest geographic rivals, Bath & Wiltshire Romans, in a re-run of last year’s West of England League Grand Final.
** MATCH FACTS **
BRISTOL SONICS 32
T: Alex Potts, Dom Swann, James Potts, Mike Gaston, Tom McIntosh, Jonny Mawer
G: Dom Swann 4 (from 6)
OXFORD CAVALIERS 16
T: Dan Brooker, Nick Arnell, Josh Stanfield-Smith
G: Dan Brooker 2 (from 3)
Half-time score: 14-6