Champagne rugby – plenty of fizz but no pop. This pretty much sums up London Welsh’s efforts in the first half of the clash with promotion favourites Bristol, at the Old Deer Park yesterday, writes Richard Grainger.
Having enjoyed 79 per cent of possession, the hosts turned round 3-13 behind having conceded the first of two penalty tries and squandered a hatful of scoring opportunities.
“If you want to get promoted, you have to look like a Premiership side,” said Head Coach Lyn Jones after watching his side recover from a 6-23 deficit in front of a huge crowd and the Sky TV cameras. They snatched a losing bonus point and a guaranteed place in the semis by virtue of two late tries, finishing 20-26 behind the visitors.
In truth, neither outfit would trouble even the lowliest of top-flight opposition on this showing; unless the eventual winners of the English domestic second tier can recruit heavily, they will be on a return ticket back to the Championship, come this time next year.
However Jones was upbeat about his side’s performance: “It showed a lot of fortitude from our players to come back and score 14 points at the death. Bristol scored 26 points but they didn’t cross our line.
“You want to be pushed to the limit, and this is what the semi-finals are going to do, not just to our players but to the other sides as well… ” He adds, with a wicked smile: “… the Bedford Pirates and the Cornish Blues”. At least he hasn’t lost his sense of humour.
The game had barely kicked off when Joe Ajuwa dropped the ball with the line virtually at his mercy. This aside, the 17 stone winger who has represented England Students, was a huge handful for the Bristol defence and gave the Exiles the momentum and quick ball that deserved better support and finishing.
However, the best chance of the half fell to No8 Ed Jackson who broke clear from his own 10-metre line with one man to beat and two in support. Indecision and lack of a pass led to a turnover from which Bristol countered and relieved the pressure.
Matthew Jones put the visitors ahead with two penalties before referee David Rose adjudged the Bristol driving maul to have been pulled down illegally, as they advanced on the Exiles’ try line, and awarded a penalty try.
Alex Davies struck his second successful penalty five minutes into the second period to reduce the deficit, before Mr Rose displeased the large home contingent by awarding a second penalty try for a repeated scrum offence. To make matters worse, Tom French, who had just replaced Shawn Pittman at loosehead, was sent to the bin. When Jones added his third penalty, there looked to be little chance of the bonus point that the Exiles needed to be sure of reaching the last four.
However, when Ma’asi Vili bulldozed over in the 72nd minute from a lineout deep in the Bristol 22 and Jones added the extras, the belief was palpable. Then in time added-on, from a rare Welsh scrum that seeped less than the Titanic, Tonga’uiha Hudson picked a fine line off a short ball from Jackson to touch down near the uprights. Jones converted to bring the Welsh within three points.
Bizarrely, when Bristol were awarded a penalty deep within the Exiles’ 22 in the last play of the game, they opted for a shot at goal rather than let Jason Hobson, who had squeezed the life out of the Welsh scrum, have another go at the tiring Exiles’ front row. Who knows? Mr Rose may have obliged again and trotted under the sticks to deny the home side the bonus point.
In the event, replacement Matty James converted to conclude a vastly entertaining afternoon’s rugby that left both sides reasonably satisfied with the outcome. As the players left the field, one wag in front of me yelled: “Hope the RFU are watching this – this is how rugby should be played – not the rubbish in the Premiership!” I beg to differ – if you want to watch rugby as it should be played, watch, as I did the previous evening, a recording of the ’71 Lions. That’s how rugby should be played.
Elsewhere in Pool A, Doncaster lost 7-38 at home on Saturday to Nottingham and both these sides are now out of the running.
In Pool B, Leeds’ promotion hopes were extinguished by virtue of the Cornish Pirates’ (not the Cornish Blues) 21-20 win over the Bedford Blues at the Mennaye Field, despite defeating Rotherham 18-21 at Clifton Lane.
And finally, in relegation Pool C, Esher just refuse to go quietly into the night. Plymouth will be sick of the sight of Molesey Road, having been thumped there twice since Christmas. On Saturday Esher ran in seven tries in their 42-17 win over Albion, and this leaves them needing a bonus point win when they travel to London Scottish on Saturday. If they achieve this, and Scottish finish pointless, Esher will remain in the Championship at the expense of the Exiles, as they have superior points difference.
This is the one to watch this weekend and will be my featured match in next week’s column, particularly as it is now the only match of any consequence.