Bristol Sonics let another opportunity to grab their first Conference League 3 victory slip through their fingers on Saturday, losing 24-16 to St Albans Centurions in a tight contest at Toulmin Drive.Bristol produced a stirring second half performance to guarantee only their second bonus point of the season, but it was not enough to overcome a St Albans side who proved difficult opponents.The Sonics enjoyed the greater of the possession in that second period, but were only able to convert two chances despite long periods of dominance. St Albans’ goal-line defence was particularly impressive in the closing stages, leaving Bristol coach Karl Fearnley frustrated yet again.Fearnley said: ‘That was another game we could, and possibly should, have won, which has been the story of recent games. For long periods we rarely looked troubled, but let in sloppy tries at crucial times. Again, we were punished for defensive errors or a lack of discipline. I couldn’t find fault with much of the performance, but again it just wasn’t quite good enough.’The home side started the game brightly and took the lead on 10 minutes, scrum half George Steven touching down an inch-perfect grubber kick from Australian player/coach Shane Rampling. Lewis Dempsey converted.Bristol bounced back quickly and were soon back within two points thanks to a long range try from Marcus Brooker. The England Students centre carved through the St Albans line and hit the gas, easing off in the final strides to touch down wide on the left.Bristol then enjoyed a short period of pressure on the St Albans line. Coach Fearnley was screaming for his players to ‘take the two points’ when awarded a penalty right in front of posts, 20 metres out, but captain Dom Swann and scrum half Lewis Beer decided to run the ball. Two tackles later, the ball was dropped and a golden opportunity had gone wasted.On 22 minutes St Albans’ supporters cheered when Bristol dropped the ball on the halfway line. Suddenly, the Centurions were given the chance to attack. Two penalties later, the first for ripping the ball, and St Albans were camped on the Sonics line. Substitute Dylan Rampling brushed off some weak tackling to crash over and make the score 10-6.Bristol were made to pay for more indiscipline on 35 minutes, as a controversial penalty was awarded to St Albans after winger Mike Norman was judged to have not played the ball after the referee called held. In Norman’s defence, although he had been tackled – by a high shot that went unpunished – there was no defender holding on to him when he hit the ground, so he believed he was within his rights to get up and keep going. The referee thought otherwise, and awarded St Albans a penalty, 20 metres out from the Sonics line. They took full advantage, Marin Day crashing over from close range. Full back Gareth Waters converted, putting the home team 16-4 up at the interval.After some harsh words at half time from a frustrated Fearnley, Bristol began the second half brilliantly. They tore into their opponents and began to make inroads into St Albans’ lead. After a period of sustained attacking pressure, Bristol were awarded a penalty for a shocking high tackle on winger Mike Norman. After working their way into the St Albans’ 20, Mike Norman danced past two defenders to touch down. Dom Swann’s conversion reduced the arrears to six points. Game on.After weathering more Bristol pressure, St Albans extended their lead on 60 minutes. After being awarded a penalty that helped that move downfield, Andy Lake touched down to make it 20-10.The Sonics, easily the better team in the second period and genuinely looking dangerous with ball in hand, refused to lie down and quickly reduced the arrears to four points. This time, Marcus Brooker collected an inch-perfect crossfield kick from captain Swann and forced his way over. Swann converted, only to be told by the referee to re-take it as he wasn’t ready. Swann duly slotted over his second attempt to make it 20-16 with 13 minutes remaining.Bristol continued to press and came close to levelling the scores on several occasions. Then, another error handed St Albans the position to seal their hard-fought victory. Winger Aaron Pearson collected the ball on his own line and ran into a wall of tacklers. He released the ball to substitute Sam Barker, but the pass was forward. St Albans were awarded a scrum and guaranteed possession for six tackles. They used this wisely, and on the fourth tackle Mike Benson squeezed over, taking two Bristol defenders with him. With an eight-point advantage and just four minutes remaining, the game was as good as up for the Sonics.Bristol continued to press in the closing stages, but couldn’t get the two scores they needed to snatch a victory. Next week Bristol return to Aretians to face 2011 champions Huddersfield-Underbank Rangers (Saturday 29 June, kick-off 2.30pm).Bristol MOTM: Marcus Brooker (centre)HST ALBANS CENTURIONS

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