LONDON WELSH 29 — CORNISH PIRATES 20 (66-41 AGGREGATE)
London Welsh were crowned kings of the Championship last night at the Kassam Stadium — a palace deemed unfit for the round table of Premiership rugby by the RFU, writes Richard Grainger.
For an album of photographs from the game click here.
A week is a long time in politics — and in rugby too, but one of the more bizarre sideshows of the latest bureaucratic farce engendered by HQ, was a parliamentary intervention by Gareth Thomas, MP for Harrow West. Last Thursday, Mr Thomas tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons supporting London Welsh’s bid for promotion to the Aviva Premiership, should they win the Championship.
Where this, and London Welsh’s possible appeal will lead, is anyone’s guess at present. But for now this should not be allowed to stand in the way of recognizing the Exiles’ truly remarkable achievement in winning the Championship — their first silverware since topping Courage League Division Five in 1995.
No one — least of all me — gave them a prayer, as they limped into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth in fourth place, only 16 points ahead of Doncaster, bottom of the clubs to avoid the relegation dogfight. Abysmal home form and critical mid-season injuries to key players hadn’t helped, but a fit squad and a revitalised sense of purpose saw them through the pool stage with just one defeat — to Bristol — at home. Bedford away was an almost pyric victory, but the Exiles managed to restrict the margin of defeat in the return leg to seven points and progress to the final.
Defeating the Pirates 21-37 on their home patch upset the formbook, particularly with the manner in which the Cornishmen had dispatched Bristol at the Mennaye Field fresh in the mind.
So would the Exiles drop the torch they carried for themselves and everyone else who champions equality of opportunity and fairness, making the Early Day Motion as noteworthy as a backbenchers post-luncheon snore?
This sub-plot gave rise to greater interest than the occasion would otherwise have merited — if only to see why the Kassam Stadium was deemed unsuitable for Premiership Rugby.
That’s still a question that needs to be answered — I found little fault with it. But if, like me, London Welsh supporters had to endure a three-hour road journey from the capital to Oxford, this may well dampen enthusiasm for their new potential home away from home.
The Pirates were the most industrious in the opening quarter and went ahead with an Aaron Penberthy drop goal after three minutes. Alex Davies replied with a penalty, before Rob Cook restored the visitors’ lead with a shot at goal in the 10th minute.
The 16-point deficit that the Pirates carried into the game forced them to exercise a degree of caution, and Penberthy and Cook probed for position rather than to go wide, forcing the home side to play from deep.
However, London Welsh were complicit with this tactic, and gifted the visitors both turnover ball and penalties too frequently to establish any foothold in the game. Gordon Ross was emphatic in the first encounter, but nerves and the occasion can even get to experienced international players, and the Welsh error count steadily mounted.
The most significant sea change from their emphatic performance at the Mennaye, was that the Welsh threw away numerical advantage on several occasions for the want of a simple pass. Last week it was textbook — this week it was comic book. However, the Pirates reciprocated by throwing to the tail of their lineout — a tactic which caused nothing but misery last week, and one which continued to gift ball to the Welsh at the Kassam.
Davies put the Welsh back on level terms with a penalty in the 16th minute and it stayed that way until Cook — who caused the Welsh more problems than did Penberthy when he popped up in the first receiver’s channel — chipped into space behind the Welsh rush defence. All eyes were on referee Mr David Rose who chose to ignore Cook’s Drogba-esque dive, while almost beneath the radar, Matt Evans collected the chip and ran to the line unchallenged. Cook converted to reduce the deficit to nine points after 23 minutes.
Davies had a chance to move the scoreboard again minutes later but his shot drifted past the right upright and the score stayed at 6-13 at the break.
When Phil Burgess burst through soft-shouldered defence and found himself with one man to beat, the pacey flanker set alarm bells ringing. But this was a chance missed, as one side-step too many took him into the defender rather than away from him, and the Exiles’ faithful breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The Welsh leeched the energy from the Pirates in the second period, particularly when Davies slotted his third penalty in the 42nd minute.
Then six minutes later, David Doherty collected a loose kick from Ross, and when Mr Rose denied him the mark, he had nowhere to go and conceded a penalty. There didn’t seem much doubt to anyone other than the officials that Davies’ kick had gone between the uprights, but Mr Rose referred it to the TMO nonetheless, and three points were awarded to the Exiles after an interminable delay.
A more straightforward penalty from Davies in the 61st minute put the Welsh 15-13 ahead on the night and gave them a cushion of 18 points, but the issue was settled in the 69th minute when Hudson Tonga’uiha exploded through a tired defence to score under the posts. Davies added the extras and the Exiles had more than one hand on the silverware.
Time was running out for the Pirates when replacement Ryan Storer was driven over in the 75th minute. However the Welsh had the last word when Jack Moates, who had replaced Rob Lewis, found a gap and wriggled over in the corner. Davies converted to make the final score 29-20 on the night and 66-41 on aggregate.
The key difference between the sides over both legs was the Welsh back row, who were outstanding, and Lee Beach was appropriately named as Sky Sports’ Man of the Match.
Some ill-mannered booing did little to spoil the party when RFU Senior Vice-President Mr Paul Murphy — who really doesn’t sound terribly senior to me — stepped onto the podium to present the trophy. Interestingly, RFU President Mr Willie Wildash sidestepped the promotion issue in his programme notes — London’s Welsh’s John Taylor did not.
What happens next, according to sources close to the power base at London Welsh, is that they will almost certainly appeal, and Promotiongate will get under way. There are those that argue that promotion would be a sword of Damocles for the Exiles, and with little time and money to recruit, they would risk losing one loyal fan base in pursuit of another.
Whatever happens, nothing should detract from what they have achieved this season on the field. Credit must also go to the Pirates — and let’s not forget that they have problems of their own — for their contribution to such a memorable final.
Perhaps the best outcome may be to leave Newcastle in the Premiership, give the Welsh the Falcons’ parachute payment and get the rules straight for next year.
For the one thing that most observers are agreed on, is that the champions deserved much better than the manner in which they have been treated.