Three down and three to go! For the first time this season I can say with some certainty that two of the three play-off pools are virtually decided, writes Richard Grainger.
Bristol and London Welsh should progress from Pool A to the semis, and, unless Esher re-discover their post-Christmas form and win all three of their final games, they will be packing their bags and heading for National League One.
Bristol, leaders by a point in Pool A, were reduced to 14 men for the final quarter, and survived a nail-biting finale at Meadow Lane to repel a robust Nottingham side on Sunday [highlights below].
The visitors had earlier romped to a 5-18 interval lead through tries from Will Helu and Fatua Otto and a Matthew Jones penalty.
However, after the break, Juan Socino intercepted a pass from Jones to score beneath the posts and put the home side in the driving seat. But against the run of play, Jones slotted two penalties to give the visitors a cushion before Matt Parr charged down an attempted clearance and went over at close range to throw the game back into the melting pot.
“Meadow Lane is a hard place to come and get a win,” said Head Coach Liam Middleton. “I’m happy with the guys because we made sure of the four points.”
On Saturday Doncaster lost to London Welsh at the Old Deer Park despite out-scoring their hosts by four tries to three, to pick up a try bonus point.
With 10 minutes to go, Welsh only led 20-19, but two late tries from Nick Scott and replacement Jack Moates saw them home as the Knights began to flag. Doncaster coach Brett Davey was pleased with his side’s efforts, which yielded three first half tries through Andy Boyde, Oli Goss and Dougie Flockhart.
Davey put his team’s defeat down to two yellow cards, Scott’s interception try and a weakened squad. Cut adrift at the foot of Pool A with only a single point, it is a near certainty that the Knights’ season will end following Stage Two.
At Headingley on Sunday, Leeds recorded their second consecutive draw in a 24-24 thriller against Bedford that which just about keeps their hopes of reaching the semis alive. The game was well poised throughout, with neither side able to establish a stranglehold. But when Jordan Davies charged down a Bedford kick to score near the posts, Carnegie established a seven-point lead. This should have been converted to ten when, shortly afterwards, they were awarded a kickable penalty. Instead, they opted for the scrum from which they conceded a penalty.
James Pritchard shrugged off weak Leeds defence to score under the posts and the game was tied at 21-21. Both sides exchanged penalties before, in the final play, referee Dave Pearson awarded a kickable penalty to the Blues and a yellow card to Joe Ford. However, after consultation with his touch judges, Pearson reversed the decision as he ruled that Ford had knocked the ball out of Luke Baldwin’s hands before he had crossed the touchline. For highlights, click here.
Elsewhere in Pool B, Rotherham belied their lowly pre-play-off status to push the Cornish Pirates all the way, but left the Mennaye Field empty-handed on Sunday.
With fewer handling errors and a little more self-belief, they could easily have left with one, two or even four points; when Dave McCall breezed through weak Pirates’ defence to give the visitors the lead, things looked ominous for the home side. However two tries from Grant Pointer and one from Gavin Cattle were enough to see the Pirates home 25-17.
The only thing that matters in Pool C is not coming last, and the odds are now heavily stacked on Esher achieving this following their 27-15 defeat by Moseley at Billeseley Common on Saturday. Tries from Greg King and Adam Caves helped to build a 27-10 lead fore Mose before the visitors mounted a comeback and notched their second try, through Arran Criickshank to add to Phil MacKenzie’s first half effort.
Esher coach Mike Schmid admitted that his side were under the cosh for all but the last 25 minutes but believes that if Esher can maintain their final quarter tempo the return fixture on Saturday will not be a foregone conclusion.
Finally, Plymouth produced their best form of the season on Friday night to inflict a comprehensive defeat on London Scottish. Although Exiles’ coach Simon Amor blamed the five day turnaround for his side’s lack of spark, he acknowledged that Albion were outstanding and put pace on the ball on every occasion in a very physical game.
Canadian No. 8 Aaron Carpenter secured the bonus point before the visitors had even troubled the scorer, following tries from Jon Vickers, Gareth Evans and Sione Tu’ipulotu. Scottish managed a late consolation try from Augustin Gosio but it was an evening that they will want to forget.
This weekend is the reverse of last week’s fixtures, with the pick of the games being Bristol V Nottingham on Friday night at the Memorial Stadium (7.45 pm KO) and Rotherham V the Cornish Pirates, on Saturday (2.00 pm KO).