In a frantic week of Championship rugby that saw Leeds, Doncaster and London Welsh in action three times in seven days, Bristol were confirmed as winners of Stage One, writes Richard Grainger.
This, of course, was never in doubt, as the Westcountry outfit went into the final round of matches with their place at the head of the table already guaranteed, but they did their play-off drive absolutely no harm by dispatching Doncaster 52-26 at the Memorial Stadium on Friday evening.
Doncaster, who looked weary after a week on the road catching up with postponed fixtures, were still in the hunt at the interval trailing 21-16. However, in an explosive second half, Bristol took total control with three tries from replacement George Watkins and one from Will Helu to add to the three touchdowns in the first period.
Coach Liam Middleton warned his players to keep their feet on the ground but believes that a strong bench and keen competition for starting places leaves Bristol well placed for their drive back to the top flight. Middleton said: “Everyone starts from scratch and we have to prove ourselves all over again”. He will be mindful that his team has already lost to Doncaster, and this will be their first outing in the play-offs on 9th March at Castle Park. Bristol’s only other league defeats have been inflicted by Nottingham, Esher, London Scottish and Plymouth, all of which were away from home. They won’t have to worry about the latter three again this season, as they will be busy trying to avoid the drop.
Doncaster’s week to forget began on Wednesday when they went down 37-14 to London Welsh at the Old Deer Park. Again the Knights were in the hunt at the break when they turned round 13-7 behind but the Exiles wicked up the heat in the second half with tries from Jack Moates, Edd Thrower, Paul Mackey and Joe Ajuwa to add to Martin Purdy’s first half score.
However, Leeds spoiled the early part of the day for the large Welsh contingent at the Old Deer Park for a Twickenham curtain raiser on Saturday. But joy at David Strettle’s last minute ‘try’ being disallowed probably moderated the disappointment of seeing their side defeated by a competent Leeds outfit that were stronger in the final quarter.
The Welsh lead 20-16 at the break and the game was poised at 29-29 with time running out when Jordan Davies scored two classy tries to secure both the win and the bonus point for the visitors.
This was a welcome turnaround for Diccon Edwards’ side that had lost 24-11 on Wednesday in the re-arranged fixture against Nottingham. The match was a low-key affair played on a soggy Nottingham training ground. There wasn’t much to separate the sides until the home team were awarded a penalty try after 46 minutes and James Alridge intercepted Will Cliff’s pass to settle the issue late on.
Nottingham’s second outing of the week was at Bedford on Saturday, where they went down 40-26 against the runners-up in Stage One. James Pritchard bagged a brace of tries for the Blues and Jon Fisher, Ollie Dodge and Luke Baldwin crossed to add to a penalty try.
However, Nottingham coach Glenn Delaney used the bench to good effect in the second half, and the Green and Whites crossed the whitewash three times to get within a converted try of pulling off a miraculous recovery. But Pritchard’s second score, on the stroke of time, put paid to the visitors’ comeback. An unusual statistic from this encounter was that none of the 66 points came from penalties.
London Scottish pulled off a minor upset at Clifton Lane where Titans’ coach Andre Bester rested players carrying knocks to give others some game time going into the play-offs. The Exiles scored three unconverted tries to finish 15-0 ahead.
It’s no longer a surprise when Esher win these days. However, the 41-17 thumping they administered to Plymouth at Molesey Road will give Albion food for thought going into the relegation dogfight. Esher were in charge from the start with their pack dominating proceedings. No8 Mike Macfarlane capitalized on the pressure his forwards created with tries either side of the interval, and the home side ran in a further four in the second period in reply to two from Plymouth.
Finally, the Cornish Pirates notched up a 32-17 win against relegation contenders Moseley at the Mennaye Field on Saturday, but it wasn’t as comfortable as the score would suggest. Their seventh consecutive win was secured late on in the game with tries from Matt Evans and Ceiron Thomas, but Moseley came to play and made the Pirates work for their bonus point win.
This leaves the Championship table looking like this at the end of Stage One: http://clubs.rfu.com/Fixtures/MatchByDivision.aspx?DivID=130433319
There will be a week’s break going into the play-offs, so next week this column will preview the three pools, look at what happens next, and suggest how the division might be won and lost.