Bristol Sonics twice battled back from a 10-point deficit to grab a last-gasp 42-40 win over Sheffield-Hallam Eagles at Don Valley Stadium.
Prop forward Liam Walker barged his way over the Sheffield line four minutes from time to level the scores, before skipper Dom Swann coolly slotted over the conversion to earn Bristol a nail-biting victory over the highly-fancied home team.
Dual-registered University of Gloucestershire All Golds centre Marcus Brooker, returning to the Bristol side he has served so well for the past three seasons, scored four tries, while man-of-the-match Jake Robertson helped himself to a brace.
Yet the Sonics could quite easily have lost the game. Sheffield-Hallam Eagles, a new club set up by 2012 Championship winners Sheffield Eagles and Sheffield Hallam University, led for much of the game and twice built up 10-point leads in the second half.
Bristol were arguably the better of the two sides from the start, but a combination of errors, slack defense and opportunistic plays kept the home side in the driving seat.
The Sonics started well, and twice crossed the whitewash in the early stages only to see the tries ruled out for dropping the ball in the act of scoring. After seeing a third try ruled out on 18 minutes, Bristol fell behind when Bradley Tatersall finished off a fine Sheffield-Hallam break. Tom Holt’s conversion made it 6-0 with 20 minutes gone.
Bristol were soon back in the game when Marcus Brooker powered down the left to narrow the arrears to two points. After seeing another try ruled out for a knock-on, Sheffield once again broke away to extend their lead. This time, it was centre Tom Ashton who crossed following a long run from Holt. The latter’s conversion made it 12-4.
Jake Robertson burrowed his way over from close range shortly after, Dom Swann converting, before a horrendous error from the otherwise faultless Brooker gifted a try to the home side. 30 metres out from his own line, he threw a loose offload. Sheffield-Hallam speedster Donald Rodangarina snaffled up the ball and sprinted down the touchline to score. Holt again converted to give the home side an 18-10 advantage with less than a minute to go until the break.
The drama wasn’t over yet, though. After Sheffield-Hallam made a mess of Swann’s kick-off, Brooker jumped to collect a high bouncing ball, 10 metres out, and trot over unopposed. Swann couldn’t add the extras, meaning the Sonics trailed 18-14 at the break.
Bristol finally got their noses in front four minutes into the second half, when Brooker somehow managed to wriggle his way over underneath the posts. Swann’s conversion made it 18-20 and the Sonics were flying.
On the back of two penalties the home side set up the position for Anthony Seeto to dive over in the corner, with Holt’s touchline-hugging conversion making it 24-20. Minutes later, prop Sam Williamson caught a poor chip from Swann and raced 60 metres to score. Holt again added the extras to make it 30-20, and it looked as if the Sonics’ resistance would melt away.
But Bristol are made of sterner stuff these days, and soon they were back in the game following another short-range effort from the excellent Robertson. Swann converted, and minutes later Bristiol were level when Brooker forced his way in the corner following a sweeping right-to-left move.
Just when it looked as if the momentum had shifted back to the Sonics, Sheffield-Hallam restored their 10 point advantage. First, the impeccable Lee Sanders got his name on the scoresheet, Holt converting, before a break from former Sheffield Eagles first-teamer Corey Hanson created the space for Tom Ashton to grab his second. Crucially, Holt’s attempted conversion drifted wide, but at ten points up with less than 10 remaining, the home side were sitting pretty.
Again, back came the Sonics. With 8 minutes remaining hooker Matt Williams ducked under some weak tackles to force his way over close to the posts, Swann converting.
From the resulting kick-off Sheffield Hallam were able to put Bristol under pressure. Somehow, skipper Swann landed a beautiful 40-20 kick to win a vital scrum deep in Sheffield territory. With the clock ticking down, prop Liam Walker collected a short pass and stormed over to level the scores. Swann’s conversion gave Bristol the lead with little over four minutes remaining.
Sheffield-Hallam threw everything at the visitors for the remainder of the contest, but Bristol’s defence stood firm to record a memorable opening-day victory.
Sheffield-Hallam Eagles 40
T: Bradley Tattersall, Tom Ashton 2, Donald Rodangarina, Anthony Seeto, Sam Williamson, Lee Sanders G: Tom Holt 6 (from 7)
Bristol Sonics 42
T: Marcus Brooker 4, Jake Robertson 2, Matt Williams, Liam Walker. G: Dom Swann 5 (from 8)
Sheffield-Hallam: Lee Sanders (prop forward)
Bristol: Jake Robertson (second row)
Bristol Sonics (v Sheffield-Hallam Eagles, 6/4/13): Max Davies, James Raymond, Mike Gaston, Marcus Brooker, Tom Verber, Dom Swann, Alex Potts, Wes Rodgers, Matt Williams, Liam Walker, Jake Robertson, Joe McLean, Rob Verber. Subs (all used): Jack Spooner, Darren van Hoof, Curtis Asante, Joe Singleton.