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WORLD CUP MATCH CAPS RUGBY LEAGUE’S RISE IN BRISTOL

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.

 

 

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NEW-LOOK SONICS SET FOR CENTS TEST

Conference League South leaders Bristol Sonics return to action this Saturday, when they take on St Albans Centurions in the first of three consecutive home games.

 

The Sonics have traditionally enjoyed a strong record at home, and have lost just once in Bristol this season – a 36-30 reverse to fellow title-chasers Sheffield-Hallam Eagles. With the Eagles boasting a game in hand and due to visit Bristol next weekend, the Sonics will be looking to make the most of tomorrow’s game with strugglers St Albans at Landseer Avenue, home of Dings Crusaders RFC (kick-off 2.30pm).

 

Bristol will have to do without skipper, goal-kicker and main playmaker Dom Swann, who is currently away on his honeymoon. It will be the first time this season that the Sonics have played without the inspirational Swann, who will also miss next week’s rematch with Sheffield.

 

With other regular playmakers also missing, South African Johan Schoeman returns to scrum half, with second team graduate Alex Potts likely to deputize for Swann at stand-off. Gloucestershire All Golds’ Rory Sharratt, a regular for the Sonics this season, looks set to continue at hooker.

 

Second team player/coach Aran Simm will be coaching the first team in the absence of Director of Rugby Karl Fearnley. Simm expects a tough game against a St Albans side who have won only once this year.

 

Simm said: “Despite their results, St Albans are a decent side and I’d expect them to give us a very tough game. If we’re just a little bit off our game they’ll punish us. When we last met in St Albans we won comfortably, but with players missing and new halfbacks it may take us some time to gel. We’ll only win if we play well, so we need to be on our game right from the first whistle.”

 

To encourage more spectators to come down and show their support for summer Rugby League, the Sonics are offering free entry to the game on Saturday.

 

Bristol Sonics’ Chairman Phil Cole said: “With the Rugby League World Cup coming to Bristol later in the year, there’s no better time to check out some live Rugby League. By making entrance free, we hope that many new fans will take the opportunity to check out the sport for themselves. I started out as a rugby union supporter in my youth, but was converted by the speed, excitement and intensity of Rugby League.  If you’ve not been to a live match, it’s worth checking out Saturday’s game for free.”

 

Meanwhile, Bristol Sonics ‘A’ travel to West of England League form side Gloucestershire Warriors (Old Centralians RFC, Gloucester, K.O 2.30pm) on Saturday, buoyed by an impressive win over Oxford Cavaliers last weekend.

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SWANN CALLS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Bristol Sonics captain Dom Swann has warned his side that they must improve dramatically to have any chance of maintaining their unbeaten start to the season.

The Sonics face Nottingham Outlaws, holders of Conference League South’s only other 100 per cent record, at Clifton RFC on Saturday (kick-off 2.30pm). With the teams currently tied on points at the top of the table, the winners have a chance to go clear of their rivals, and a chasing pack led by pre-season title favourites Sheffield-Hallam Eagles.

Last weekend, the Sonics needed a last minute try from veteran fullback James Gross to keep their winning start to the season in tact. The previous week, they were fairly unimpressive against Conference League South new boys Northampton Demons but ground out a result in terrible conditions.

Skipper Swann knows that the Sonics must improve considerably if they are to maintain their winning start to the season, especially against an in-form Nottingham side that provided stiff competition to Bristol last season.

Swann said: “So far this season the results have been good, but the performances less so. We’ve somehow found enough to win, even when we’ve played badly, but we can’t keep playing poorly and expect to get the results, especially against good sides like Nottingham. This week I’ll be looking for a big improvement.”

In all three matches this season, the Sonics have made life difficult for themselves. Although they’ve often started and ended games well, they’ve yet to put in an ’80 minute performance’.

Stand-off Swann, who is now into his 11th season with the Sonics, is all to aware of the problems that need rectifying. He said: “It’s true that we’ve been making a lot of silly errors and letting our discipline lapse. This has allowed teams to get back into matches we should have been winning comfortably. I think there’s still some rustiness there. We know we’re not in great form, but the response in training has been excellent, and I’m expecting an improved performance on Saturday.”

Swann also praised the support his side has received so far this season. He said: “Despite the foul weather, there was a decent crowd at our first home game against Northampton. It really lifts the team when we have a big crowd cheering us on, so I’d encourage people to get up to Clifton on Saturday and show their support for one of Bristol’s most successful sports teams of recent years.”

Bristol Sonics face Nottingham Outlaws on Saturday, April 27 at Clifton RFC. Entrance to the top-of-the-table clash with Nottingham Outlaws is £3, including complimentary matchday programme. Entry for under-16s is free.

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SONICS SEEK MATCH DAY VOLUNTEERS

Bristol Sonics are looking for a number of volunteers to help with the smooth running of matchday management during the 2013 Conference League South season, which begins after Easter.

To ensure that our matches at Clifton RFC run smoothly, we’re looking for people willing to lend a hand with stewarding (collecting admission money and directing fans to the clubhouse and pitch), programme selling, administration, collecting match stats, taking photographs and capturing video, and other small tasks such as setting up the pitch and laying out players’ kit before the game.

None of these tasks is particularly arduous, and most can be completed within 30 minutes or less. In return for their help and commitment, volunteers will be given free entry to all our home games and complimentary copies of matchday programmes. There are also a number of other benefits, including discounts on club merchandise and travel to away matches.

Full training will be given, where needed, and volunteers will be supervised at all times. If you’re interested but cannot commit to the whole season, don’t worry – we’d love to have you involved.

The Sonics’ Conference League South season begins on 6th April, with the first home game at Clifton RFC taking place the following Saturday, 13th April.

For more information please email Nick Brook on nhbrook@me.com

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REGISTRATION NIGHT THIS FRIDAY

Bristol Sonics preparation for the 2013 summer season gets underway in earnest this Friday (March 8), with a “Registration Night” for players and fans at Clifton RFC, Henbury (7pm start).

The night has been designed to allow players and fans to find out the club’s plans for the coming season, to sign membership forms and pay their dues for the 2013 season. Incentives, such as money off fees and free club merchandise, are available for those who pay their “subs” on Friday night.

There will be a presentation from the Sonics committee on the club’s aims for the coming season (7.30pm) and a chance to watch the St Helens-Warrington Super League game (8pm) on a big screen. The evening has been designed to cater for returning regulars and newcomers alike.

More details about membership prices and player “subs” can be found here. This season, the club has introduced a “social membership” for non-playing members, which includes entry into all home matches and free coach travel to away games. Meanwhile, playing subs for first team squad members have been capped at £120 (payable via a standing order over six months), or £120 if paid all at once, before the start of the season (for example at Friday’s registration night).

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SONICS ANNOUNCE PRE-SEASON SCHEDULE

Bristol Sonics have announced their pre-season training schedule ahead of the summer 2013 Rugby League season.

Twice weekly training sessions will begin on Monday 25th February and continue through to the start of the Conference League South season on April 6.

All prospective players, whether regulars from previous seasons or newcomers who fancy giving Rugby League a go, are urged to attend training sessions as soon as possible.

Pre-season training begins on Monday 25 February, with team ‘fitness’ sessions hosted by acclaimed strength and conditioning coach Mark Hammond. His ‘Bodyblitz’ sessions take place on Monday nights at Winterbourne Academy, 7.45-9pm.

Squad sessions, including skills work and team moves, begin on Thursday 28th February at Clifton RFC, Henbury (near Cribbs Causeway), 6.45pm for a 7.00pm start.

Both fitness and ‘squad’ sessions will run every week until the start of the season. Squad sessions will take place twice weekly during the season at Clifton RFC. More details will be posted soon.

Ahead of the start of the season, Bristol Sonics will also be hosting a player and volunteer registration night on Friday, March 8 (venue TBA). This will offer a chance for club members, fans and players to come together, watch a televised Super League game (Warrington versus St Helens) and discuss the season ahead. Players can pay their membership fees on the night. We have a number of incentives for early payment.

All our welcome, whether new to Rugby League, a regular Sonics fan or an interested player who wants to give the 13-a-side code a go.

The Sonics have also announced their one and only pre-season friendly. They will play the University of the West of England on Sunday, March 24 (venue TBC).