Bristol Sonics overturned a 20-point deficit to secure a remarkable 56-48 victory over 2015 West Of England Champions Bath & Wiltshire Romans at Landseer Avenue.
Bristol trailed for all bar 10 minutes, with debutant second-rower Jack Harbridge’s two late tries – both converted by player/coach Dom Swann – securing a last-gasp victory in a 19-try thriller.
Bath started quickly, with stand-off Paul Riley twice scything through Bristol’s shaky defence in the opening ten minutes to score dazzling long range tries, both of which were converted with ease by Fijian centre Bruce Vuetanaotoka.
Bristol hit back on the first significant attack of the game on 15 minutes, quick hands sending the ball wide to winger Jonny Mawer to crash over. Dom Swann slotted over a remarkable touchline conversion to reduce the arrears to six points, but with 10 minutes the visitors had extended their lead to 20 points.
First Riley completed his hat-trick with another mazy, long-range run, before Vuetanaotoka did the same. Fellow centre Ben Brierley was then put through a gap by Riley and raced away to score. Although Vuetanaotoka could only add one conversion, the Romans were 26-6 ahead and sitting pretty.
On the back of a series of penalties, the Sonics roared back into the game. Tries from Johan Schoeman – following a scintillating break and offload from replacement prop Curtis Asante – and Wes Long, the latter converted by Swann, brought the home side back within 10 points. When hooker Charlie Geary squeezed over for a try, again converted by Swann, the Sonics trailed by just 4 points. There was still time for a twist before half time, though, with the excellent Vuetanaotoka once again crossing the whitewash for a try he converted himself. At half time, the Romans remained ten points ahead at 32-22, but there was still all to play for.
After a quiet opening to the second half, Bath’s Paul Riley scored another trademark score, converted by Vuetanaotoka, and many thought the Sonics had too much to do.
Now 16 points in arrears, Bristol needed a big response. They got it when Kieran Harvey somehow managed to bulldoze his way over from 10 metres out, Swann adding the extras, and prop Simon Bannistern scooting over out wide. Bristol were only within a converted score for a matter of minutes, though, before Ben Brierley grabbed his second try of the afternoon. Joe Knight’s conversion put Bath 12 points ahead with 18 minutes remaining.
The Sonics surged forward looking to make amends, and worked the ball wide to Elliot Nightingale. He spun away from a high tackle, stepped back inside and crashed over, Swann making no mistake with the conversion. With 76 minutes on the clock, Bristol finally levelled the scores. Prop forward Byron Jerome was hauled down close to the line, bit stretched out his arm and somehow managed to ground the ball close to the posts. Swann slotted over the conversion, and suddenly it was anyone’s game.
The force was suddenly with the Sonics, who now looked like scoring on every attack. With 10 minutes remaining, the ball was thrown wide to second rower Jack Harbirdge, who marked his Bristol debut by racing clear of some tired defenders to touch down. Swann’s conversion put the Sonics six points ahead for the first time.
There were still further twists to come. The Romans showed champion form to get up on the canvas and reply, hooker Leigh Wheatley capping a fine game with a much-needed score. With Vuetanaotoka off the pitch, Paul Riley stepped up to attempt the conversion. His kick floated well wide, meaning that Bristol still held a slender two-point advantage.
With just over five minutes to go, Bristol once again worked the ball wide to Harbridge, who broke clear before getting as near as he could to the posts before touching down. Swann calmly converted, giving the Sonics a vital eight-point advantage.
The Romans threw everything at the Sonics line in the closing minutes, but for once the home side’s defence held firm. When referee Ian Waters whistled to mark full time, Bristol’s players jubilantly celebrated their first West of England League win of the season.
Bristol Sonics player/coach Dom Swann said: “That was another thrilling game and it’s great to get the win, but we didn’t make it easy for ourselves. We started poorly and make some very basic errors in defence, which allowed them to deservedly go 20 points ahead. The way we came back over the final 50 minutes of the game was excellent, and I think we just about deserved to edge it in the end. That said, Bath played some superb stuff, too, and we had to dig deep to keep them out at the end. Somehow we held on for victory, and that gives us something to build our season on.”
The Sonics return to action next Saturday with a trip to face old rivals Oxford Cavaliers, before returning to Landseer Avenue the following weekend for a date with Gloucestershire Warriors.
** MATCH FACTS **
T: Jonny Mawer, Johan Schoeman, Wesley Long, Charlie Geary, Kieran Harvey, Simon Bannister, Elliot Nightingale, Byron Edwards, Jack Harbridge 2
G: Dom Swann 8 (from 10)
BATH & WILTSHIRE ROMANS48
T: Paul Riley 4, Bruce Vuetanaotoka 2, Ben Brierley 2, Leigh Wheatley
G: Bruce Vuetanaotoka 5 (from 7), Joe Knight 1 (from 1)
MAN OF THE MATCH AWARDS
Sonics: Mike Gaston (centre)
Romans: Paul Riley (stand off)
Half-time score: 22-32
Referee: Ian Waters