Bristol Sonics continued their unbeaten start to the 2013 Southern Conference League season, grinding out a 24-10 win over Northampton Demons at Clifton RFC.
The Sonics were always the stronger of the two sides, but made heavy weather of overcoming a determined Demons side who arguably mastered the difficult conditions better.
With torrential rain and strong winds sweeping across the chilly “shelf” pitch at Station Lane, it was always going to be an old-fashioned kind of match. With mud-soaked players struggling to hold off a slippery ball and defenses on top, it looked more like a traditional winter amateur game than a free-flowing summer match.
Despite the scoreline, Bristol could – and probably should – have won by more points. They built up an 18-0 lead within half an hour, before being pegged back by a Northampton team helped by the home side’s lack of discipline and inability to complete enough sets of six tackles. While the Sonics were never exactly hanging on, they needed Wes Rodgers’ second-half try to settle the nerves of their agitated spectators and give them a bit of breathing space.
Things had begun so well. Dom Swann’s kick off was allowed to bounce into touch by Northampton, and from the resultant scrum the Sonics put pressure on the home side’s try line. With just 90 seconds on the clock, dual-registered All Golds star Sam Blaney surged through the visitors’ weak defense and crossed for the first try of the game. Swann’s attempted conversion drifted well wide.
The Demons were struggling not only to stop Bristol’s forward momentum – props Ollie Yates and Liam Walker impressing up front – but also to keep hold of the ball when they had it. With so much ball with which to attack the Demons’ defense, it was no surprise that tries came at regular intervals.
On 15 minutes, quick hands from hooker Matt Williams and scrum-half Dave Tomlinson allowed skipper Dom Swann to find right winger Tom Davies with a long, hanging pass. Davies showed a great turn of pace to beat the cover tackler and dive in at the corner. Swann’s attempted conversion hit the post, but referee Ian Curzon ordered him to retake it. Amazingly, the veteran stand-off hit the same post with his second attempt.
Bristol didn’t have it all their own way in the early exchanges. Referee Curzon took exception to a number of high tackles and Bristol’s aggressive tackling, and Northampton were awarded a string of penalties. On 21 minutes Curzon lost patience with scrum-half Dave Tomlinson, and sent him to the sin-bin for persistent offending.
Strangely, Bristol barely struggled while Tomlinson was off the pitch and actually extended their lead further. First, Jake Robertson continued his fine try-scoring form with a typical close-range effort, before prop forward Ollie Yates marked a fine debut by powering his way over close to the posts. This time, Swann was able to convert, putting the Sonics 18-0 up with 30 minutes played.
Bristol’s discipline continued to waver, much to the frustration of the crowd, and more cheap penalties gifted Northampton a way back into a match they looked destined to lose by a cricket score.
With 33 minutes on the clock Demons winger Reese Rance reacted first to a beautiful crossfield kick from impressive stand-off Ollie Furness. The ball looked to be heading out, but somehow Rance touched it down just milimetres from the dead ball line.
Then, on the stroke of half time, Bristol again gifted Northampton a chance to attack on the back of another penalty, this time for a ripping the ball out of the attacker’s hands. Scrum-half Daniel Watts took advantage, turning an angled run to the line into a try-scoring opportunity. The Sonics weren’t impressed, though, as it appeared that the ball had been knocked on at the play-the-ball in the build-up. Either way, the score stood, Furness converted and the Demons were back within eight points.
This unlikely comeback seemed to spur the visitors on. They were arguably the better team in the second half. While they hardly threatened the Sonics line, their simple game plan and excellent kicking game made it difficult for the home side. Bristol didn’t help themselves much, either, with plenty of dropped balls and few completed sets of six tackles. Fortunately, their defense was too strong for the Demons, who struggled to penetrate or make decent ground.
The Sonics believed they had the game wrapped up on 55 minutes, when Marcus Brooker broke through the line and slid in to score. Referee Curzon thought otherwise, and spotted a knock-on from Brooker as he was crossing the line. Northampton were naturally delirious.
Bristol did finally get a score to settle the nerves and secure the win, and it came from the best piece of play of the whole match. Swann found centre Mike Gaston with a beautifully weighted pass and he sprinted through the line at pace, 30 metres out. He drew the fullback and passed back inside to supporting loose forward Wes Rodgers. Despite juggling with the ball, he rounded the last defender and crashed over between the posts. Swann converted to put Bristol 14 points up with less than 15 minutes remaining.
Northampton tried their best to get back into it, but Bristol’s defense was just too strong.
After the game, Sonics’ Director of Rugby Karl Fearnley had mixed feelings about the win. He said: “We weren’t at our best today and made far too many poor choices with the ball. We got 18-0 up by playing a simple game that worked in the terrible conditions. We then seemed to lose our heads. I always felt like we had too much for them, but we didn’t make it easy for ourselves. Credit should also go to Northampton who played the conditions very well in the second half and didn’t take a backward step. There’s plenty to work on in training this week.”
Next week, Bristol travel to face Leicester Storm at New College, Leicester (kick-off 2.30pm), looking to make it three wins on the bounce. Today, Leicester lost 16-38 to Sheffield-Hallam Eagles.