Results from the second tier of England Rugby’s professional structure continue to be as difficult to predict as an English winter, writes Richard Grainger.

With only four rounds remaining in Stage One, it is still a mathematical possibility than all bar one of the 12 clubs could make the promotion play-offs. Although Esher are adrift at the bottom with only ten points, their recent run of form, aided by the return from injury of key players, would suggest that they will not enter the relegation scrap as whipping boys.

They could consider themselves unlucky not to take five points from a nine-try thriller against fourth placed Cornish Pirates at Molesey Road on Saturday. However, they did enough to grab both a try and a losing bonus point despite going down 30-36.

Mark Atkinson had an off day with the boot and had the ball bounced kindly for winger Charlie Walker in the last minute, Esher would have achieved the win that head coach Mike Schmid believed they deserved. However, Schmid is happy that his side is competing now and this performance emphasizes how far they have come since Christmas.

For the first time this season, all but one Championship clashes kicked off at the traditionally appointed time for rugby – Saturday afternoon. Nottingham were scheduled to host Doncaster at Meadow Lane on Sunday but the game was called off at 2.15 due to a frozen pitch. Ironically, Meadow Lane is one of three grounds that currently meet most of Premiership Rugby’s criteria.

The formbook received its first reversal at the Old Deer Park, where London Welsh brought Bristol’s seven-match Championship winning run to an abrupt end. The visitors were first on the scoreboard when Tongan international Will Helu finished a move initiated by a line break and a sublime offload from Jack Tovey – (check out the clip below)…

However, Bristol were never in the ascendancy as London Welsh displayed the form that had made them Premiership contenders until they were ravaged by injuries. Their last Championship win was against Bedford on 3rd December. Saul Nelson who had moved from Bristol to join the Exiles was delighted to bag the decisive score, but Bristol were so far off the pace that they were did well to leave with a losing bonus point. They had Matty James’s two late penalties to thank for that.

The formbook was further upturned at Brickfields where Plymouth achieved their first five point win of the season against an erratic Leeds Carnegie.

Diccon Edwards’ outfit made another strong start but missed the three loan players who had returned to their clubs – in particular, George Ford. Two tries from hooker Gareth Evans, and a try a-piece from Paul Roberts and Wayne Sprangle were enough to see Albion home with the bonus point.

Leeds’ poor discipline proved costly again. Flanker Ryan Burrows was yellow-carded before the interval and Albion took full advantage to draw level. When Leeds were reduced to 14 for the second time with replacement Craig Hampson in the bin, Evans scored his second try to seal the victory. Joe Ford’s penalty got the losing bonus point for Carnegie with the last kick of the game.

Bedford will still fancy their chances in the play-offs having reduced the gap behind Bristol to seven points with a seven try thrashing of London Scottish at Goldington Road.

The Championship’s top try scorer, Josh Bassett scored a hat-trick and Darryl Veenendaal bagged a pair to add to fine individual efforts from Jake Sharp and Don Barrell. This heavy defeat will almost certainly leave the Exiles in the wrong third of the table unless they can extract close to maximum points from their final four fixtures.

Finally, in another nine try thriller, Rotherham managed to hang on to claim five points despite a late Moseley surge, which earned them a try bonus point. The small crowd at Clifton Lane were treated to a fine display of open rugby but were disappointed that the Titans could not build on a 33-17 half time lead.

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