Tonight, top flight Rugby League returns to Bristol for the first time since 1911, when the touring Australians beat Wales and West 23-3 at Ashton Gate. Just 1,000 confused locals turned up to watch.
Just before 8pm, the Cook Islands and the United States of America will walk out onto the Memoral Stadium turf for a vital Rugby League World Cup 2013 encounter.
A crowd in excess of 5,000 will roar them on, while a “guard of honour” made up of local Rugby League players and volunteers will greet the players as they make their entrance.
That guard of honour will feature five representatives from Bristol Sonics, the city’s community club. Four of those are the “Brooker brothers”, the region’s answer to the Burgess brothers. All four – eldest brother Marcus, local community coach Daniel, 18 year-old Dean and 16 year-old Harry – have all played for the Sonics. The fifth representative will be Tristan Moore, recently retired second team captain and one of the club’s junior coaches.
In the stands watching on will be a large group of players, volunteers and fans from Bristol’s community club, who no doubt will be rubbing their eyes in amazement.
You see, it was just 11 years ago when a small group of people got together in a pub in Filton to discuss the idea of starting a Rugby League team in Bristol.
It’s a remarkable story in anyone’s book.
Before the Sonics, there had been very little Rugby League in Bristol. During the 1980s and early ‘90s, there was an amateur club playing in the now defunct Midlands and South West Amateur Rugby League Association (MASWARLA). With the 100-year war between rugby union and Rugby League still ongoing, the club struggled to attract and retain players, with most regular players appearing under pseudonyms in order to avoid a lifetime ban from playing union.
Then, in 2002, an official from the Rugby Football League contacted Phil Cole, a local League enthusiast and Union convert, to ask whether he fancied trying to launch a club in Bristol.
Cole did just that, posting messages on Internet forums asking anyone interested to come to a meeting at a pub in Filton. A handful of people turned up, but it was enough. Further meetings followed, and a few more volunteers appeared. By the end of September 2011, Bristol Sonics were born.
The Sonics story since has been one of struggle and success. The early years, in particular, were hard, as the club struggled to attract and retain players and moved ground on an almost yearly basis. During their first season in 2003, the Sonics won just two games, suffering the bitter disappointment of losing to Cardiff Demons by 70, 90 and 100 points.
What a contrast to where Rugby League in Bristol, and the South West at large, now finds itself.
Alongside Cheltenham-based Championship One side University of Gloucestershire All Golds, the Sonics have been integral in getting Rugby League into schools in Bristol and South Gloucestershire. The Sonics have junior teams at under 14 and under 16 level, which feeds into the Bristol Rugby League Academy side based at South Gloucestershire & Stroud College, based at the WISE Campus in Filton.
At adult, or “open age”, level, the Sonics boast two sides. The second team plays in the West of England League, alongside local amateur clubs including Swindon St George, Gloucestershire Warriors and Somerset Vikings. The first team, meanwhile, plays in Conference League South, a “tier 3” league featuring the strongest amateur sides outside of the North of England. This summer, the Sonics came second in that League, behind eventual winners Sheffield-Hallam Eagles, effectively Championship winners Sheffield Eagles’ second team.
Rugby League is still a small sport in Bristol, but it is growing. Year-on-year over the last decade, more players, fans and volunteers have got involved, either through the Sonics, schools coaching or at one of the local universities and colleges. League is, slowly but surely, making its presence felt.
Tonight, Rugby League in Bristol will get a shot in the arm like nothing that’s come before. So far, the Rugby League World Cup 2013 has been a runaway success, with classic matches, memorable moments and star players doing extraordinary things. The impact has been such that sales for tonight’s game in Bristol have rocketed since the weekend, with almost unexpected demand.
The vast majority of tonight’s crowd will be watching Rugby League for the first time. Despite the hard work of the Sonics in marketing themselves, many will not know that there is a community club on their doorstep. When they find out, we can expect interest to grow massively.
Occasions such as this don’t come around too often. In fact, it’s been over 100 years between drinks for Bristol and top-flight Rugby League. We might not see anything like it for years to come. As the Rugby League World Cup 2013 hastag says, you have to #BeThere.
It will be memorable in so many ways, and particularly poignant for those who endured the Sonics’ early years of toil, where the club struggled to stay afloat, once had to field a team containing only five players with any kind of previous rugby experience and teetered on the brink of collapse.
It may be a cliché, but dreams really do come true.
The Cook Islands take on the U.S.A at The Memorial Stadium, Bristol, tonight (Wednesday 30th October) in Rugby League World Cup 2013. Tickets start from £10 for adults and £5 for concessions. Some tickets will be available at the ground. For more information on Rugby League World Cup 2013, head to www.rlwc2013.com.