A converted try from hooker Nick Portch with the last play of the game earned Bristol Sonics another dramatic, last-gasp 30-28 win over Leicester Storm.
With referee David Butler poised to blow for full time, Portch produced a moment of magic to dive over for the try that levelled the scores at 28-apiece. Sonics’ skipper Dom Swann kept his nerve to slot over the conversion from a tricky angle to earn Bristol their second last-minute win at New College, Leicester, in the space of four months.
Earlier in the season, the Sonics stole the points from the home side when veteran half back James Gross somehow squeezed over in the left corner with seconds remaining. Portch’s try came in similar circumstances, and fittingly was scored in almost exactly the same spot.
For Bristol, the victory was extra sweet given the circumstances surrounding the game. Missing a string of first team regulars and forced to travel with 15 (plus player/coach Aran Simm, who didn’t make it on to the pitch in the end), the Sonics were up against it from the start. Yet the players who stepped up from the second team – Nick Portch, Lee Bartlett, Alex Potts, Joe Singleton and Myles Raymond – fully justified their selection, playing an integral part in what will go down as one of the Sonics’ most memorable wins to date.
Things didn’t start particularly well for Bristol. After an error-strewn opening Leicester took the lead on seven minutes. The Sonics were culpable of dropping the ball in their own half, and the home side took full advantage. The ball was worked wide to the winger, who strolled in unopposed.
On 18 minutes Leicester extended their lead with a simple try, as a Storm player brushed off some weak attempted tackles to dive over beneath the posts. The conversion made it 10-0.
The home side were in control at this point. While Bristol made yards down the flanks, they were guilty of making too many errors and didn’t seem to be playing with the sort of fluidity fans have come to expect from the Sonics.
Slowly, things began to improve. As the half wore on Bristol began to enjoy more possession and good field position, and eventually made the home side pay. On 29 minutes loose forward Jake Robertson barged through a string of would-be tacklers on a 40-metre dash to the try line. Swann converted from the left touchline to reduce the arrears to four points.
Then, three minutes later, the Sonics levelled the scores when top try-scorer Marcus Brooker powered his way over from 10 metres out. Swann couldn’t convert.
Bristol looked to be getting on top, but within three minutes the home side had retaken the lead. Following a Sonics’ error 20 metres from their own line, Leicester probed the Bristol line for four tackles before finally breaching the visitors’ defence. The easy conversion put the home side six points ahead.
Worse was to come for Bristol in the dying seconds of the first half. Having earned good field position from another Leicester knock-on 30 metres from their own line, the Sonics sensed blood. Instead, the ball was intercepted by a Leicester player, who raced 70 metres before passing to a teammate, who dived over under the posts. The conversion sailed between the uprights, giving the home side a 22-10 lead at the break.
Having looked rusty and, at times, jaded in the first period, it seemed that Bristol would struggle in the second half. Crucially, though, they would be playing down New College’s sloping pitch, giving them a potential advantage in the closing stages if the game was close.
The Sonics began the half with real purpose, and scored within a minute of the restart. Having spotted a weakness in the home side’s right side defence (Bristol’s left edge attack), Marcus Brooker took full advantage, again forcing his way over to score his second try of the afternoon. It was his 16th of the season, tying Dom Swann’s club record for tries in a campaign. Swann couldn’t convert, but the Sonics were back in the game.
Something of an arm wrestle developed, as Bristol probed down the flanks and did their best to put the home side under pressure. For their part, Leicester looked rattled. Their error count increased, and they began to give away needless penalties.
Eventually, Bristol’s pressure told. On 58 minutes hooker Nick Portch burrowed his over from close range on the left for a try, converted by Swann, which left the Sonics trailing by just two points.
It would get worse before it got better, though. Having clawed their way back into contention, the Sonics’ slipped further behind with 12 minutes remaining. Some loose tackling allowed Leicester’s full back to surge through a gap and touch down under the posts. The conversion extended the home side’s lead to eight points.
The Sonics, though, have previous form when it comes to late comebacks, having won several games from losing positions this season. They were playing well and, surprisingly, looked the fresher and fitter of the two sides in the closing stages.
With eight minutes remaining, Bristol gave themselves hope with a brilliantly taken try from winger James Raymond, who dived in at the right corner after a wonderful, flowing, left-to-right passing move. Swann couldn’t convert, but the Sonics were now just four points behind.
As the clock ticked down, Bristol seemed to waste their big chance to sneak a win. With less than 2 minutes remaining, the Sonics spurned a four man overlap on the left and somehow lost the ball.
But the drama wasn’t over. Needing to simply complete a set of six to seal the win, Leicester dropped the ball 20 metres from their own line with a minute to go. One scrum and two tackles later, Nick Portch found himself at acting half back, two metres from Storm’s tryline. Sensing the Brooker brothers hovering at the left edge, looking for the ball, Leicester’s defenders instinctively shifted towards them. Portch feigned to pass in that direction before stepping the other way and diving through the resultant gap to level the scores.
With time up, skipper Swann had a chance to give his side victory. Taking a few deep breaths, he calmly slotted the conversion between the sticks and let out a primal roar. Once again, the Sonics had won a game they looked like losing.
Afterwards, Swann was predictably ecstatic. He said: “That has to go down as one of our best results of the season. It wasn’t a great performance, but we got better as the match went on and in the second half we were definitely the better side. What makes it so special is the side we had out. Lots of lads were asked to step up from the seconds and they all lifted their game. It will be hard to drop them now – playing like that should earn them a chance to play in our remaining league fixtures and stake a claim for a place in the team for the play-offs.”
The Sonics next face third-placed Nottingham Outlaws at Clifton RFC on Saturday 10th August (kick-off 2.30pm).
Bristol Sonics scorers
Tries: Jake Robertson (29 minutes), Marcus Brooker 2 (33 mins, 41 mins), Nick Portch 2 (58 mins, 80 mins), James Raymond (75 mins)
Conversions: Dom Swann 3 (from 6)
4-0, 10-0, 10-4, 10-6, 10-10, 16-10, 22-10, 22-14, 22-20, 28-20, 28-24, 28-30
Man of the Match
Nick Portch (hooker)