In Pool A Bristol, the clear post Stage One favourites, dropped two points against a well-organized and highly charged London Welsh side at the Memorial Stadium on Sunday.
But it could have been a whole lot worse. When Gordon Ross put the visitors ahead with a drop goal mid-way through the second period, a defeat look on the cards. Marco Mama, the Bristol flanker said: “We were lucky to get the draw. It’s a big wake-up call for us. We had the highs of Doncaster last week and this has brought us back down to earth.” However, Matthew Jones struck a forty-metre penalty late on to level the scores at 12-12 and once again the Exiles had to head back along the M4 without the full compliment of points.
Liam Middleton was less than happy with his side’s performance: “I count this as a defeat,” said the head coach. “We didn’t deserve to win because we didn’t impose our game on the opposition.”
If one thing is easier to predict it is that Doncaster’s season will finish in four week’s time. Nottingham had no problems dispatching the Knights 3-0 at Meadow Lane, scoring three tries in the process. Before the game, Doncaster’s coach, Brett Davey, had admitted that his side would be under par due to a back catalogue of injuries and this proved to be the case.
It’s unlikely that the Green and Whites will progress from this group, but with the erratic form of the leaders, Bristol and London Welsh, don’t write them off yet.
There was more frustration at Goldington Road on Friday night when the Cornish Pirates managed to relinquish a 19-point lead and head back to the Tamar with nothing but a losing bonus point. The visitors led 6-25 at the interval with tries from Andrew Suniula, Matt Evans and Tom Kessell. Michael Tutty began the game with the whistle before Richard Kelly replaced him, but neither official did the Pirates any favours, according to Pirates’ coach, Ian Davies. 18 penalties, two yellow cards and the twice knocked-on try that began the Bedford fight-back, were enough to turn Davies red in the face and force him to conclude that his side had fallen foul of the officials.
Bedford’s Lazarus act has left them ten points clear in Pool B but the Pirates should still have enough class to make the final four.
And if they do, they will have Leeds, with whom they drew at the Mennaye Field last week, to thank for it. Throughout the season, Carnegie have been incapable of putting two decent performances together, and Sunday was no exception.
At Headingley, Rotherham breezed home 3-20 in this Pool B Yorkshire derby and kept their hopes alive of securing that second semi-final place. A dismal first half performance virtually handed the tie to the visitors, and a Tommy Bell penalty was all that Carnegie had to show for their afternoon’s work. Rotherham scored one try through Robin Copeland, one of the four top players set to leave the club at the end of this term.
Leeds will point to the fact that they were without second-row Dom Barrow and flanker Chris Walker, who were required by England U20s.
For the second consecutive week, Esher defied my prediction that they will survive, by losing to Plymouth at Brickfields. That they scored the game’s only try, through Tom Alexander, and secured a losing bonus point will be scant consolation. Esher, who had dispatched Albion 41-17 three weeks ago at Molesey Road, simply had to win this game. James Love’s five penalties were enough to see fellow-strugglers Albion home 15-11, and it’s now beginning to look grim for Esher. They must now win at least three of their remaining four games to have any hope.
Finally, elsewhere in Pool C, London Scottish saw off Moseley 23-20 in a bruising encounter at Richmond. This game was more decisive than the score-line would suggest, as the visitors only managed a score a try in the 88th minute to secure a losing bonus point.
Scottish, who lead the “pool of death”, travel to Plymouth this weekend and an away win would pretty much guarantee their survival.