Bristol Sonics face arguably the biggest game of their 11-year history this Saturday, when they take on Nottingham Outlaws in the Semi-Final of Conference League South at Clifton RFC (kick-off 2.30pm, free entry).
The Sonics, who finished second in the league, six points ahead of the Outlaws, are looking to book their first “Tier 3” Grand Final appearance in only their second season in amateur rugby league’s elite competitions.
The winners of Saturday’s clash will face either Sheffield-Hallam Eagles or Leicester Storm in the Conference League South Grand Final at Butts Park Arena, Coventry, on Sunday, September 15.
Bristol face a tough task on Saturday, with Nottingham heading to the South West on the back of a fine run of form that includes a 26-22 win over the Sonics when the teams met three weeks ago at Clifton.
The Sonics began the season brightly, beating title favourites Sheffield-Hallam – the Sheffield Eagles-affiliated side’s only loss so far this campaign – but have endured a dip in form over the last two months. Although Bristol have lost just twice in that period – once to the Outlaws and once to the Eagles – they have struggled to regain their early season form.
Sonics’ skipper Dom Swann, playing his tenth season for the club, has urged his side to seize the moment on Saturday. He said: “Our entire season boils down to 80 minutes of cup rugby on Saturday. Before the season began, our aim was to do well in the League in order to give ourselves the best possible opportunity to reach the Grand Final. We’ve done that. Now we have to finish the job.
“Nottingham are a terrific side, and we’ve enjoyed some very close games with them this year. When they first came down here, earlier in the season, we played superbly and beat them by 40 points. At their place, we struggled but came away with a draw. Then they came down here three weeks ago and beat us.
“They’ll be confident of turning us over, so we’ll have to be at the top of our game to make the Grand Final. We have the personnel and the skills to win, and being at home with a partisan crowd cheering us on will help, but we’ll only do that if we play to our potential. In recent weeks our execution has been poor, and we’ve required a lot of individual brilliance to get us out of tricky situations. We can’t expect that to be enough against as good a side as Nottingham. We have to play well as a team from the first minute to the last.”
Swann, who has seen the ups and downs of the Sonics’ 11-year existence at close quarters, has also called on supporters to come out in force to cheer on the side in their last home game of the 2013 season. He said: “We appreciate all the support we get and it would be great to see a large, noisy crowd cheering us on as we aim to make history. We’ve had some big games before, in lower leagues or the Challenge Cup, but this tops them all. To make the Grand Final, in only our second season at this elite level, would be a tremendous achievement. Entry to watch the match is free, and I’d encourage anyone who loves rugby of either code to come and cheer on the Sonics this Saturday.”
Director of Rugby Karl Fearnley is hopeful of naming a strong side to take on the Outlaws, but will be without full back Dan Evans for the crunch clash. Second-rower Anton Wells, who grabbed two tries in the Sonics’ last outing against St Albans, is likely to retain his place, behind a front row containing experienced props Wes Rodgers and Daniel Brooker. Fearnley is also hopeful that Jake Robertson, one of the club’s standout players this season, will also feature.
Bristol Sonics take on Nottingham Outlaws at Clifton RFC on Saturday 31st August, kick-off 2.30pm. Entry to the game is free.