Headingley was the scene for the latest upset in what is proving to be a fascinating second tier competition, writes Richard Grainger.
The penultimate week the Championship’s Stage One saw Leeds lose 22-24 at home to bottom-placed Esher on Sunday, a reversal which virtually ends Leeds’ Premiership dreams for this season. Of course, the Yorkshire side, currently in seventh place, have a game in hand and, with the play-offs to come, anything is possible, but they appear to be unable to string two consistent performances together.
Leeds, who had not played for two weeks, fielded a full-strength side, including new-signing Halani Aulika, the Tongan international and former Highlanders prop. Additionally, England U20s forwards Chris Walker and Dominic Barrow returned to the fray alongside fullback Michael Stephenson.
Leeds scored from the first set-piece of the game when Esher were shunted off the ball for Jacob Rowan to gather and sprint 65 metres to the line. Joe Ford missed the conversion, but the home side were in total control until Esher began to frustrate Leeds by slowing their ball at the breakdown. Carnegie conceded a string of penalties, one of which was kicked by Esher’s Nicky Little.
Esher looked to put pace on the ball and were rewarded when poor Carnegie defence allowed second row Tom Alexander to cross at the corner. Michael Stephenson responded with Leeds’ second try after Little had missed a penalty. Ford added the conversion to give Leeds a 12-8 lead.
A second Little penalty left Esher a point behind at the interval, and Ford and Little traded penalties before replacement back rower Richard Beck crashed over for Leeds, Ford converting to put Leeds 22-14 ahead. Esher replacement fly-half Martin Atkinson reduced the deficit to five points with a penalty and Jon Pendlebury was sent to the sin bin for a technical offence.
Leeds squandered a kickable chance when Robbie Shaw tapped and went. The ball was turned over and Esher capitalized when Phil Mackenzie went over for the equalizing score. Atkinson added the extras to gave his side an historic win in stoppage time, although Ford pulled a drop goal attempt wide with the last kick of the game.
At The Mennaye on Sunday the Cornish Pirates defeated leaders Bristol 18-17 in a bad tempered affair. Bristol went into the game knowing that they had done enough to win Stage One but Liam Middleton conceded that the Pirates were the better side on the day.
Yellow cards for Mariano Sambucetti and Darren Compton – who had just come on as a replacement – made life hard for the visitors. Bristol took an 8-11 lead into the interval after Luke Eves registered his first try for the club:
Earlier Dave Ward had scored for the Pirates to add to Grant Pointer’s penalty and Tristan Roberts was successful with two penalties.
In the second period, Roberts and Rob Cook traded penalties before Chris Morgan exploited the Pirates’ man advantage to give them an 18-14 lead. Roberts got the visitors to within a point but the home side held on to send Bristol home with a second consecutive away defeat. Click here for extended highlights…
It was a poor week for Doncaster who lost twice in four days. On Wednesday in front of a small crowd at Meadow Lane, the Knights slumped to a 40-14 defeat at the hands of Nottingham who scored four tries to pick up the bonus point. And on Saturday at Castle Park, over 4,000 spurned the Sky broadcast and turned out to see the Dons lose 14-15 to Rotherham with the last kick of the match. Garry Law, the Championship’s top points scorer saw his 88th minute penalty shot change direction late in its flight to finish inside the left upright, much to the joy of the Rotherham players and supporters.
This leaves the Knights firmly placed in eighth place but comfortably ahead of Moseley who head up the relegation contenders, going down by four tries to two at home to Bedford on Saturday. Bedford managed to win on the road for the first time since early November with two tries from Luke Baldwin and a try a-piece from Darren Fox and Ian Vaas.
Moseley competed well with tries from Mike Ellery and Adam Caves, and coach Kevin Maggs was pleased with his side’s performance despite conceding what he considered to be three soft tries.
Nottingham completed a profitable week on Saturday with a 19-21 win over Plymouth at Brickfields, despite having winger Michael Penn sent off for an apparent head butt. This leaves the Green and Whites just outside the top four with a trip to second-placed Bedford on Saturday. Plymouth should get an idea as to how the relegation dogfight may play out for them when they travel to Esher on Saturday.
Finally, in the battle of the Exiles, London Welsh recorded their third win over London Scottish at the Athletic Ground. Ben Russell crossed twice for the Welsh and, and Ed Jackson and Hudson Tonga’uiha bagged a try each in a bonus point win. The Welsh hang on to fourth spot while their neighbours remain one place from the bottom. Leeds travel to the Old Deer Park on Saturday and London Scottish visit Rotherham for their final outing before the play-offs.
This all leaves the Championship table looking like this…