By Richard Grainger
London Welsh will be in the driving seat tomorrow as they take a 19-point lead to the Memorial Ground, as they try to pip Bristol for a Premiership place
London Welsh take a 19-point lead to a sold out Memorial Stadium next Wednesday following a master-class of precision rugby in atrocious conditions at the Kassam on Wednesday night.
Bristol opened and closed the scoring, but sandwiched between Marco Mama’s fourth minute touchdown from a catch and drive, and Adrian Jarvis’ 78th minute penalty, was the antithesis of everything that saw Bristol finish the regular season as the division’s top try scorers.
The blunt instrument that is the Exiles’ pack — ironically now coached by Darren Crompton — dominated scrum time and denied Bristol a foothold in the game when they most needed one.
The Exiles have been criticised under Justin Burnells’s watch as one-trick ponies, but when the trick works as effectively as this, frankly, who cares?
Nathan Trevett was bundled over the Bristol line after 15 minutes in a carbon copy of Mama’s try, and Gordon Ross added the extras to give Welsh a lead they never looked like relinquishing.
Five minutes later, following the charge down of a Ross clearance, Chris Cook scooped up a turnover deep in the Exiles 22, with referee Wayne Barnes indicating penalty advantage to the hosts. The Exiles’ scrum-half fed Nathan Morris who sent pace-man Nick Scott away to beat two defenders and run in from 60 metres. When Ross converted, and added a penalty before the interval, the Exiles were in dreamland.
Bristol were not helped when they lost skipper and new talisman Ryan Jones, following a serious looking injury to his left ankle after half an hour. Jones, who had been instrumental in Bristol’s early dominance at the breakdown, left the field on a stretcher and was followed by scrum half Luke Baldwin two minutes later.
Things got worse for the visitors four minutes after the interval, when flanker Carl Kirwan touched down following another catch and drive after Bristol had infringed for the ninth time.
Ross converted to give the Exiles a 24-5 lead and proceeded to orchestrate Welsh’s ariel bombardment, pinning Bristol deep in their half, with delightful dabs and penetrative touch finders from Seb Jewell and Tom May to layer the symphony.
With three-quarters of the game gone and Bristol showing no signs of reducing the deficit, director of rugby Andy Robinson replaced fly-half and acting captain Nicky Robinson with Adrian Jarvis.
But with Welsh now rampant, Nick Scott almost bagged the Exiles’ fourth following a Seb Jewell break but couldn’t take the scoring pass in difficult conditions. Bristol managed to stem another attack from a Richard Thorpe scrum pick up, but Wayne Barnes adjudged Nick Koster’s intervention illegal and sent him to sit out time in the bin.
Despite direction to kick to the corner from the Exiles’ technical area, Ross and May opted for the points. Bristol managed to weather the last ten minutes without further catastrophe, and Jarvis struck a penalty to reduce the deficit to 19 points with two minutes remaining.
Perhaps years of practice from coaching International rugby prepared Andy Robinson for magnanimity in defeat, praising the Exiles for outplaying his side in every department.
“You’ve got to give London Welsh real credit,” Robinson said, “they took us on in every area and they dominated every area.
“It’s about performance,” he added, “and it is about being able to bring your A game at this stage, and we didn’t bring our A game.”
The cliché that this is only half time, was much in evidence from the hosts post match; indeed, they will know that Bristol, who scored 38 tries in 23 games, will be a force to be reckoned with next Wednesday in their final game at the Memorial Stadium. Three quick tries and that mountain is climbed.
Bristol, who delighted crowds with ‘nothing to lose’ rugby when they had everything to lose, will not go quietly into the night, even against the side with the division’s best defense. But they will need to be more precise, more disciplined and more effective in the tight if they are to affect a comeback of Lazarus proportions.
Put a date in your diary for tomorrow evening and expect a rollercoaster ride. There will be thrills and spills in this one yet!
Play-off second-leg. Bristol (8) v London Welsh (27) Memorial Stadium. Kick-off 19.45
Bristol: Wallace; Amesbury, Tovey, Mosses, Short; Robinson, Tipuna (capt); Traynor, Johnston, Cortes, Glynn, Townson, Koster, Mama, Eadie.
Replacements: Lawrence, Hall, Hobson, Skirving, Grindal, Jarvis, Hughes.
London Welsh: Awcock, Stegmann, May (capt), Jewell, Scott, Ross, Cook, Trevett, Morris, Edwards, Spencer, Corker, Lees, Kirwan, Thorpe.
Replacements: Vella, Bristow, Tideswell, West, Stedman, Lewis, Crane.