CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL, 1ST LEG: CORNISH PIRATES 21, LONDON WELSH 37
London Welsh showed the RFU exactly what they thought of the their decision to bar them from the Aviva Premiership by making the Cornish Pirates walk the plank at the Mennaye Field last night, writes Richard Grainger.
Club chairman, Bleddyn Phillips told Sky Sports that London Welsh had made an arrangement with the Kassam Stadium in Oxford, specifically to enable them to schedule games as required by Premiership Rugby and the host broadcaster.
“To those who might say it lacks Primacy of Tenure,” said Mr Phillips, “I would point out that clubs like London Irish or Saracens or Sale, or indeed other clubs in top flight rugby — I think there are three or four who currently ground share with Football Association clubs — and for whom there appears to be no problem in satisfying the Primary of Tenure criterion — why should that preclude them [Championship winners] taking their place at the top table as well?”
You can read the official London Welsh statement, issued yesterday afternoon, here.
Opinion was also critical of the RFU’s decision in the Sky commentary box, with Exeter’s Head Coach, Rob Baxter and former England captain Pat Sanderson both in favour of promotion and relegation.
“At the minute we’re creating a bit of a closed shop,” said Baxter, “and that’s not good for anybody. I’d kind of quite like to see London Welsh do something,” he added with a mischievous smile, “because I think we’d just like to see what would happen.”
Baxter got his wish when the visitors devoured the home side’s critical errors at the lineout to built a first half score that they rarely looked like relinquishing.
Both sides looked drained, with tired bodies falling off tackles and leaving defensive gaps that would never have appeared a month ago. The physical toll of the play-offs — a mini tournament in itself — and the emotional stadium fatigue of the last seven days was apparent.
But for London Welsh, who had last been in a major final back in 1985 when they lost to Bath in the John Player Cup, this was their most accurate and clinical performance for some time.
The gameplan worked perfectly — although to be fair — they wouldn’t have counted on the Pirates’ lineout being such a comprehensive disaster in the first half.
Ex-Scotland international, Gordon Ross, was mercurial at fly-half, kicking with pinpoint accuracy and moving the Pirates’ defence around at will.
His only error, a gap left in defence when the Exiles’ scrum was wheeled taking Mike Denbee away from his defensive channel, led to the Pirates’ first try in the seventh minute.
Grant Pointer popped up in the 10 channel from a scrum and exploited the gap to touch down close to the posts. Rob Cook, who had already turned down a couple of kickable penalties, converted to give the home side a seven-point lead.
Alex Davies responded with a penalty for the visitors and added a second in the 13th minute when Ceiron Thomas was yellow-carded for a one-handed interception attempt.
The Exiles exploited their numerical advantage switching play from right to left for Joe Ajuwa to cross. Improved handling has been a hallmark of Lyn Jones’ side, and if you ever wanted to show a schoolboy how to draw and give, you would have to go back to the ‘70s for a better example than this.
Then in the 30th minute, Mike Denbee picked off the fourth wayward Pirates’ throw to the tail, and the ball was moved to the right flank — with a little help of a clear block in the midfield — for Nick Scott to collect a sublime pass from Ross and score his seventh try in 11 games. Davies converted and the Welsh led 7-23.
Before the interval, however, the Pirates were rewarded with a penalty try when the Welsh lost the engagement and loosehead Max Lahiff, on loan from London Irish, was put under severe pressure.
There was stalemate in the second period, the only scoring chance a rare missed penalty from Cook, until the Welsh scored twice in as many minutes to silence the home crowd.
First, Hudson Tonga’uiha scythed through a ball-watching defence to sprint 60 metres to the line. Davies converted, and from the restart Lee Beach plundered a defensive mismatch, fed Ed Jackson who popped the ball back for James Lewis to find his route to the line unchallenged. Davies added the extras to make it a 23-point lead.
However, Tonga’uiha’s lapse of concentration, when he played replacement Tom Kessell in the air, earned him 10 minutes in the bin, and a try by the ubiquitous Phil Burgess, converted by Cook, gave the Pirates a lifeline.
It could have been more, had referee Mr Sean Greg Garner spotted a clear Welsh hand in the ruck deep in their 22, which would have reduced them to 13 men.
As it was, the Exiles saw out the remaining nine minutes to take a 16-point lead to the Kassam Stadium nest Wednesday.
In the end, the Pirates’ first half error count and the dominance of the Welsh back five were the difference. Sky Sports’ Man of the Match, skipper Jonathan Mills moved up from the flank to the second row for the match, a position he had last played as an Under 16. Ironically, that was against the Pirates and the Welsh won then too.
The RFU has never appeared to concern itself much about its credibility. However, if the Welsh convert this lead and are champions this next time next week, they may very well find themselves defending their ruling in court.
Not only has the Championship lacked a sponsor; it has lacked an identity and a direction. It is wholly unacceptable to treat clubs in this manner, and no amount of passing the buck to a third party to adjudicate Premiership eligibility can excuse this rudderless approach.
If the Championship is to be used for the preparation of players for life in the Premiership, or to give a soft landing to those coming down, through dual registration, that’s fair enough. But if that’s the case, then let’s not have the pretense that it matters if you win the division or finish bottom of the Premiership.
Sadly, once again, lack of direction and clarity of planning and communication has sullied what has been an excellent competition.
We eagerly await the second leg, London Welsh’s response and the outcome, should they win and choose to appeal. As for the RFU, they will be wearing headscarves and eye patches and hoping for the best.
Follow Richard Grainger on Twitter @maverickwriter