ben youngs

THE GREAT thing about Eurovision, is that when it’s all over, Engelbert Humperdinck — win or lose — will return to relative obscurity, writes Richard Grainger.

Sadly, the same will apply to one, if not both, of the teams who will contest the Championship final, irrespective of the outcome.

Unless the RFU and Premiership Rugby Ltd surprise everyone and come up with some very radical proposals in a statement to be issued prior to the first leg of the final, the front door to the Premiership will remain the back door to nowhere for both contestants.

The Cornish Pirates, who held off a spirited Bristol fight back at the Memorial Stadium on Sunday, will return to the Championship next season irrespective of the outcome, having made no plans to meet Premiership criteria for next season.

London Welsh, however, should they win, will not go quietly into the night, and are drawing up plans to challenge the ruling in the courts. In a statement issued last Friday, Exiles’ chief executive John Taylor told the Rugby Paper: “We’re pretty confident about our position in that we have gone through large parts of the audit process and jumped every hurdle”.

However, one key hurdle, which the Welsh almost failed to jump, was to see off a highly charged Bedford side and hang onto the slimmest of leads at the Old Deer Park on Sunday.

On a glorious afternoon for rugby, the Exiles kicked off with a 10-point lead that did little to inspire confidence in the faithful, mindful of a home record that had only yielded six wins in the first phase of the competition.

However, the Exiles showed no intentions of sitting on their lead, and had Joe Ajuwa not been called back twice for a foot in touch in the opening ten minutes, they could well have put the tie beyond Bedford’s reach.

Bedford struggled to get a foothold in the game until mid-way through the first period when the Exiles chose to kick to the corner instead of asking Alex Davies to have a shot at goal. They lost the ball from the ensuing lineout, and thereafter lost their way, as the visitors began to capitalize on some aimless kicking from Gordon Ross.

Despite losing their first lineout, the Bedford pack, which had been as shaky as the Greek economy at Goldington Road in the first leg, fronted up and made the home side work hard for first phase ball.

However, they were no match for the Exiles at the breakdown; with Mike Denbee and prop Max Lahiff too quick and too strong for the visitors, the Blues conceded penalties in critical areas and Davies was on target with three attempts before the interval.

But before the break, the Welsh burgled ball from a Bedford lineout close to their line and decided to counter from deep when a simple clearance would have been better. Bedford turned it over, moved the ball wide and Ollie Dodge barreled his way over in the right hand corner. James Pritchard added the extras to reduce the deficit to 12 points and keep the Blues fans interested.

Bedford upped the intensity in the second period and took the lead in the 42nd minute with a Pritchard penalty.

However, when the Welsh secured another turnover in midfield, Ross kicked into space for Nick Scott to chase. Henry Staff appeared to have the kick covered but slipped and Scott collected and touched down.

Ross’s conversion attempt went wide but when Davies added his fourth penalty in the 54th minute, the Exiles appeared to have at least one foot in the final with a 17-point lead.

As Bedford’s head coach, Mike Rayer emptied the bench, the Blues threw wave after wave of attack at the hosts, and Lyn Jones’s policy of keeping his starting lineup engaged looked dubious.  Don Barrell, who had replaced Gregor Gillanders, was a major handful and it took a bone-crunching tackle from Lahiff to prevent him going over in the corner. However, Barrell found a gap and drove over close to the posts with six minutes of regular time to play.

Pritchard converted to reduce the deficit to 10 points, but it wasn’t until the final minute of normal time that referee Mr Llyr ApGeraint-Roberts’ interpretation of a Blues’ handling error set the warning bells ringing in earnest.

“It was a clear knock-on, that’s my only comment,” said head coach Lyn Jones. “Only two people didn’t see it in the whole world, so what can I say?”

As the Exiles stopped and waited for the whistle, Neil Cochrane collected the ball, side-stepped a bemused Alex Davies and scored near the uprights. Pritchard added the extras and extra time, after 160 minutes of play, seemed a possibility.

However, the Exiles managed to keep the Blues out of drop goal range and saw out Mr ApGeraint-Roberts’ nine minutes of extra time without further incident.

Click here for the match gallery of 209 photos (taken by Cameron Grainger)

“It was getting a bit tense towards the end,” said Exiles’ replacement scrum-half, Jack Moates. “They really come back at us. We were trying to defend a lead rather than pushing on for points.”

“The first half was excellent,” said Lyn Jones, “good intensity… we fell away for the last 20 minutes because we’re not strong enough, we’re not conditioned enough to play at that intensity for 80 minutes. It’s all to play for now.”

But for Bedford, it was a case of what might have been. “We lost it in the first leg,” said flanker Sacha Harding. “We wanted to put pace on the game from the start really, and we knew we had to score tries to win the game.”

At the Memorial Stadium, four tries from Bristol were not enough to reverse their 21-point deficit at the Mennaye Field. The side that dominated the first phase of the Championship never hit their stride in the play-offs,  and too many errors and missed opportunities on Sunday cost them a place in the final.

However, they got to within seven points of the Pirates, but with a minute to go, a late Rob Cook penalty restored a ten-point gap, leaving the visitors 63-53 aggregate winners.

Head coach Liam Middleton told the club website: “It was a great game today. I was hugely disappointed at full time but we’re bouncing back and I’m excited about the future”

The first leg of the final, between the Cornish Pirates and London Welsh will be played in Cornwall —the venue has not yet been announced — on Wednesday 23rd May, 7.45pm. The return leg will be played at the Kassam Stadium, Oxford, on Wednesday 30th May, also kicking-off at 7.45pm.

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