By Richard Grainger
Bristol and London Welsh will contest a two-legged final with the winner replacing Worcester in the Aviva Premiership next season.
That the two top teams after the regular season should battle it out in the final is a validation of the tournament’s structure. Less so, are rules that permit Bristol’s passage to the final to be hugely aided and abetted by Ryan Jones, who joined Bristol from Ospreys before the transfer deadline in March.
Bristol tough out last twenty to overcome Titans
Rotherham 11, Bristol 22 (Bristol 39, Rotherham 25 on aggregate)
33 year-old Jones, who is one of an elite club of six players to have won three Grand Slams, continued to play for the Ospreys on a loan arrangement until he arrived at the Memorial Stadium earlier this month. Rule are rules; but is this really in the spirit of the Championship?
Jones made his debut on Saturday against the Titans — only three points adrift after the first leg — and played a key role in a nervy Bristol performance, taking over from Ruki Tipuna as captain in the second half.
“You can’t underestimate what Ryan has done in just two weeks,” said Bristol head coach Sean Holley. “At half-time I made him captain, having taken Ruki Tipuna off. It’s nice to able to go to Wales’s most capped captain at half-time and give him the captain’s armband.”
Bristol trailed by eight points — five on aggregate — at the interval thanks to a Juan Pablo Socini penalty and a try from Irish winger Michael Keating. But Bristol’s former Welsh international fly-half, Nicky Robinson, responded well to criticism of his poor kicking in the first leg with a 100 per cent record, adding four second half penalties and the conversion of Ben Mosses’ try to his first half three-pointer.
Bristol scored 19 unanswered points after the break to ensure a grand send-off at the Memorial Ground on June 4th when they host London Welsh in the second leg, before moving to Ashton Gate next season.
The Titans pushed the promotion favourites all the way at Abbeydale, home of Sheffield RUFC, on Saturday and will rue the normally metronomic Socini’s long overdue off day with the boot. When Marco Mama was carded before half time, Holley’s men knew that they had to improve their accuracy and control, and Ryan’s Jones’ experience helped calm nerves and steer them home.
Welsh win shootout in the Oxford sun
London Welsh 29, Leeds 20 (London Welsh 60, Leeds 58 on aggregate)
The only disappointment about this tie — albeit for the neutral — was that, after 160 minutes, someone had to lose. This game had everything.
Leeds found themselves tantalisingly close to the finishing line, 13 points ahead for the third time in two weeks, a mere 12 minutes away from a Championship final.
But the final gallop came from the a fitter looking Exiles side, who scored two tries in three minutes to put themselves within a point of the visitors. And when Leeds — who had already conceded 12 penalties — again fell foul of referee Greg Garner’s whistle, Gordon Ross put his jittery kicking form behind him to nail the penalty that put Welsh ahead in the final furlong.
Ross had opened the scoring with a penalty before Leeds were turned over following a tap and go in their own 22. The former Scottish international initiated the counter from which Man of the Match Carl Kirwan scored an unconverted try.
Then Stevie McColl’s try wiped out the hosts’ slender aggregate lead, and when Glyn Hughes knocked over his only successful kick from four attempts, Leeds held a six point advantage. Ross reduced that to three before the break but when play resumed, Alex Lozowski, who had replaced Hughes, added a penalty following an infringement for which Kirwan was sent to the bin.
Hughes, who couldn’t miss at Headingley last Sunday, was out of sorts with the boot, but coach Jimmy Lowes also opted for a less high-risk strategy by installing Lozowski at 10.
Up until the turnaround, Carnegie had been playing champagne Barbarians style rugby, which had gifted 11 points to the Exiles.
Following a lengthy stoppage for an injury to Rob Vickerman, Ross had the chance to reduce the gap to three but his penalty attempt struck the outside of the upright.
When McColl sent Charlie Beech over in the left corner following a Jonah Holmes break, and Lozowski’s touchline conversion put the visitors 13 points ahead for the third time, Carnegie had one foot in the final.
But Welsh, who had tightened up their set piece from last Sunday and were more effective at the breakdown, responded instantly with a try from Sky Sports’ Man of the Match Seb Stegmann, which Ross converted from the touchline. Three minutes later, with Carnegie visibly wilting, Ollie Stedman cantered over from a ruck. Ross missed the conversion and the Exiles still lagged by a point.
Ross’s was on target in the 71st minute to put Welsh ahead when it mattered most, but there was still one final piece of drama when Lozowski shaped for a long range drop goal, but took his eye off the ball. It appeared to have gone backwards but Glen Garner didn’t think so, and when Ross booted the ball into an empty stand from the following scrum, the celebrations began.
“When you get two good teams it can go either way, but like I’ve said from day one, we’re a resilient bunch,” said a delighted Exiles head coach, Justin Burnell. “We never roll over and in that last 20 we just seemed to get better. There was no panic whatsoever.”
Leeds have the consolation of a trip to Donnybrook this Friday (kick off 7.30pm) to play Leinster A in the final of the British & Irish Cup, while London Welsh prepare to host Bristol at the Kassam on Wednesday 28th May, kick off 7.45 pm, before making the trip to the Memorial Ground the following Wednesday.