AVONMOUTH will be playing national league rugby next season for the first time in the club's history after a dramatic South West One play-off showdown at Salisbury.
This enthralling clash between the runners-up in the west and east divisions was tied at 13-13 after 80 minutes – and the deadlock continued, despite 20 minutes of extra time.
With both sides having scored two unconverted tries, Avonmouth were promoted as the away side and now take their place in National Three South West.
It was desperately tight, with nothing to choose between two well-drilled teams, who cancelled each other out in every facet of the game.
But if Avonmouth had an edge, it became more apparent in the post-match celebration huddle, where head coach Wayne Hone savoured a deeply satisfying success before reminding his squad of the importance of a full turn-out at training tonight, ahead of Thursday's Charles Saunders Combination Cup final against Thornbury at the Memorial Ground.
That cold-eyed determination and level of focus served the Bristol visitors well for 80 regulation minutes and then proved crucial in extra time when character, composure and discipline were needed most.
Defence was the story of the game, with both sides so well organised and so effective in the tackle and at the breakdown area that quick ball and clear-cut attacking opportunities were severely limited.
Salisbury, playing into the considerable wind, absorbed a good start by Avonmouth before taking the lead with a ninth-minute, 22-metre penalty by Rory Davis. However, Avonmouth were soon level thanks to an Andy Taylor penalty from in front of the posts, awarded for offside.
Davis was quickly handed another kick. And if the consensus behind the posts was that his first penalty had in fact been wide of the mark, then there was also general agreement that his second effort was good, only for the flags to mysteriously stay down.
There was no argument, though, about the first try of the afternoon. The visitors missed a clearing kick to touch and Salisbury took advantage to put together a neat sweeping move, which ended with winger Tom Pottage scything his way through for an unconverted touchdown.
That score sparked an immediate response from Avonmouth, as Taylor and the busy Charlie Reynolds
combined to take the visitors deep into the Salisbury 22.
Fly-half Matt Belbin
made the most of quality line-out ball to feed Reynolds, who came in off his wing to split the defence and put Taylor – totally secure in defence and a constant handful going forward – over for a touchdown that again levelled the scores.
Taylor missed the conversion and two tricky penalty kicks, including an ambitious attempt from a metre inside the Salisbury half, before the turnaround which gave Salisbury the advantage of the elements.
But it was Avonmouth who then took the lead for the first time, as inspirational skipper Neil 'Chucky' Evans was worked over from a catch-and-drive move in the 57th minute.
The visitors began to exert so much control of the game that victory appeared to be assured, despite the closeness of the scoreboard. But against the run of play, a loose Avonmouth pass was intercepted 60 metres out by Pottage, who sprinted down the touchline for his second try, which also went unconverted, with 12 minutes to go.
Defensive lines were then tightened even further by both teams, taking the game into extra time where the attritional battle continued.
Avonmouth were content to hold on to the ball for the final five minutes and count down the clock.
Evans said: "It was heart in mouth stuff at the end, but I'm so proud of our boys who have put so much work in over the season and been so committed. We had to show a lot of heart to come through."
Hone added: "The hard work starts again now. We'll analyse what we need to do and, hopefully, get our preparation right because now we've gone up. our aim will be to stay up."