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SONICS SECURE GRAND FINAL APPEARANCE

Another hat-trick from in-form full back James Gross helped Bristol Sonics grind out the win they needed to guarantee a second successive Cooperative RLC Midlands Premier Grand Final appearance.The Sonics were far from their best in front of a packed home crowd at Aretians, but had enough quality to overcome Northampton Demons 34-18 and book their place in the August 13th showpiece.In front of a film crew from Sky Sports’ flagship Rugby League magazine show Boots & all, Bristol started well and enjoyed the majority of early possession. Determined tackling, strong running and smart kicking from skipper Dom Swann pushed Northampton back early on, offering the Sonics a chance to attack deep in Demons territory. While a few good chances went begging, a neat crossfield kick from Swann on 15 minutes allowed Bristol to force a goal-line drop-out from the visitors. 30 seconds later, loose forward Tom Verber forced his way over from close range to open the scoring, Swann converting.The Sonics continued to look a threat through the middle and on the fringes, and it was from a run down the left channel that Swann and scrum half Joel Keen carved an opportunity for Josh Sampson on 20 minutes. The strong-running second rower broke the line 40 metres out and headed towards the posts, only to see a certain try slip from his grasp when he lost the ball in the act of scoring.This early reprieve seemed to spur Northampton on, and soon they were back in Bristol territory. On the back of a penalty for offside against the Sonics, the Demons created the position for giant second-rower F Braithewaite to dive over. M Meek added the extras to level the scores.Bristol had been so dominant in the early stages, but now had a fight on their hands. The Sonics responded well, completing their sets of six tackles and pushing Northampton back. The Demons struggled to get out of their own half, and Bristol were in no mood to give them easy territorial gains.On 25 minutes the pressure paid off, as a poor kick from the Demons’ scrum half found its way straight into the hands of Bristol full back James Gross. As he’s done all season, Gross ran the ball back hard, skipping past four would-be tacklers on an inspired 60-metre charge to the line. While Swann couldn’t convert, Bristol were back in charge.The remainder of the first half followed a now familiar pattern, with Bristol pressurizing Northampton and the latter struggling the set a platform. Physically, the Sonics looked the superior of the two sides and would surely make their dominance pay.On the stroke of half time they did just that. Following a Northampton knock-on 20 metres out from their line, Bristol put on a move straight from the scrum. Keen and Swann exchanged passes before finding Gross, who stepped past the final defender and dived over close to the sticks. Swann’s conversion made it 16-6 to the home side at the interval.The second period started in a familiar fashion, with Bristol working the ball downfield. A succession of cheap penalties gave the Sonics a chance to attack Northampton’s line. They grabbed the opportunity with both hands, centre Marcus Brooker turning on a sixpence, stepping back inside and diving over the whitewash close to the left touchline. Amazingly, Swann’s touchline conversion sailed between the sticks to give Bristol a 22-6 lead.Northampton, desperate for a win to keep their slim Grand Final hopes alive, soon got back into the game. A loose pass early in the tackle count resulted in a knock-on from Bristol, giving the Demons a chance to attack on half way. Another penalty for offside saw them advance to Bristol’s 20, where they set up for the position for M Meek to brush off some weak tackling and touch down. He converted himself, bringing the Demons within 10 points of the home side.Bristol continued to make uncharacteristic errors and offer up field position. Having previously looked comfortable, home supporters began to worry that the Sonics were going to let a winning position slip through their fingers. While Bristol’s defence continued to look strong – Gary Carpenter in particular excelling – they were coughing up possession on a regular basis and giving away silly penalties.A piece of brilliant individual skill from Marcus Brooker soon settled the nerves. With 60 minutes gone Brooker set off on a run down the left touchline. Before reaching the final defender he put in an inch-perfect kick ahead. Sprinting past his opposite number, he collected the ball on the second bounce and trotted over for a brilliant try.The score seemed to give Bristol a new lease of life, and soon they’d all but wrapped up the game. After another period of pressure deep in Demons territory, hooker Harry Marson found barnstorming forward Wayne Cochran. He broke through three weak tackles to touch down in the right corner. Swann missed the conversion, but at 30-12 up there would surely be no way back for the visitors.Northampton again rallied on the back of penalties and errors from the Sonics and pulled a try back on 70 minutes, Meek again going over from close range. His conversion reduced the deficit to two converted tries with ten minutes left.The Demons piled on the pressure, but the Sonics defence held firm. Then, with two minutes remaining, Bristol scored the try of the game to wrap up the win. Collecting the ball just inside his own half, Sonics’ skipper Dom Swann kicked and collected an audacious chip over the Demons’ defence before releasing Joel Keen with an inch-perfect pass. Keen was hauled down five metres from the line, but a quick play-the-ball allowed Swann to find James Gross, who scored the try with ease. It completed a second hat-trick in as many weeks for Gross, who has now scored 9 tries in his last three outings.The victory all but secures Bristol top spot in the Cooperative RLC Midlands Premier table, and guarantees a Grand Final appearance on August 13. The Sonics are likely to face Leicester Storm, who picked up a vital win over Birmingham Bulldogs on Saturday thanks to two late tries from former Bristol player Simon Anniss.At the final whistle, Bristol Sonics’ Director of Coaching Karl Fearnley paid tribute to his charges: ‘I’m really proud of the lads for the way that they’ve played over the last few weeks. To qualify for the Grand Final, which was always our aim, with a week of the regular season remaining is a great result. Today we weren’t at our best, but it was still a pretty good all round performance. If we keep maintaining these levels and cut out the errors, we’re in with a good shout of winning the title.’

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