The final scoreline might not have reflected it, but London Welsh took some more encouraging steps forward against Wasps at the Kassam Stadium.
Tom Varndell’s hat-trick ensured Dai Young’s top four chasers left with what they came for, a bonus point victory, but for 52 minutes the Exiles were more than a match for the Champions Cup quarter-finalists.
When Varndell crossed twice in the opening ten minutes memories of Welsh’s 70-point humbling at Adams Park came rushing back, but the home side responded well and Opeti Fonua’s try ensured the Exiles went in just 12-5 down at the break.
Will Robinson’s penalty cut the deficit further, but Wasps then hit the accelerator with Ashley Johnson and Varndell going over in a five-minute spell.
Chris Elder responded for Welsh on his Premiership debut, but Sailosi Tagicakibau’s try and a last-gasp score from Alapati Leiua added a gloss to the scoreline that few could argue was harsh on Welsh.
A 71-7 defeat was all Welsh got from their visit to Adams Park earlier in the season and it seemed like Wasps were in the mood to hand out a repeat performance, as they flew out of the blocks at the Kassam Stadium on Sunday.
A try saving tackle by Elder denied Varndell in the opening moments, but there was no stopping the winger moments later, although Thomas Young’s final pass looked suspiciously forward. The TMO deemed otherwise, however, and Welsh were even further behind after Koree Britton saw yellow with the Exiles on the back foot. Wasps won a scrum against the head in the Welsh 22 and the winger touched down in the same corner from Leiua’s pass.
It had been all Wasps up to that point, but thereafter the away side somewhat lost their way as Britton returned to the fray. But Welsh were conceding too many penalties for their own liking, at both ends of the pitch.
For all of Wasps’ electrifying start, the home side were back in the game when Roberts nudged a penalty into the corner and the Exiles drove their way over the line. Fonua claiming his third try in 11 Premiership appearances for Welsh.
Welsh tails were up and Pete Browne came inches short of adding a second try. As it was, the Exiles would go in just 12-5 down at the break. Given the opening ten minutes, not a bad scoreline at all.
Leiua couldn’t quite win the race to touchdown Goode’s deft chip over the top, but Wasps continued to press until Browne won a penalty at the breakdown. A further two penalties later and Robinson was closing the gap to just four points from in front of the Wasps posts.
That was too close for comfort for Wasps and they hit the accelerator. First, Johnson was driven over from a catch and drive and then five minutes later Elliot Daly’s sublime offload sent Varndell in for his hat-trick. Goode converted both scores and suddenly Wasps led 26-8.
Far from wilting, however, the Exiles reduced arrears just four minutes later. Fonua picked up from a scrum and ploughed into Wasps once again, before linking with another making his Premiership debut for the club, Darren Waters. Welsh kept the attack going until Elder found space down the left hand touchline and using Browne as a decoy on his inside rounded Tagicakibau to score.
Once again, though, Welsh were unable to clear their lines from the restart and despite some valiant defence on their own tryline, Tagicakibau went over from close range.
The game was up for Welsh but the home side continued to search for more tries of their own and they should have been aided by Carlo Festuccia seeing yellow for a swinging arm on Robinson. Ten minutes still remained, but they would be a frustrating ten minutes for the Exiles – aside from the sight of James Haskell bouncing off Fonua for the home side’s champagne moment of the game - who were unable to make their numerical advantage tell, despite coming close several times.
To add insult to injury, Leius skipped through to touch down from the game’s last play to give the final scoreline a far more comprehensive look than it deserved.
London Welsh scorers:
Tries: Fonua, Elder; Cons: Robinson.
Tries: Varndell (3), Johnson, Tagicakibau, Leiua; Cons: Goode (4), Lozowski.
Referee: Greg Garner
Touch Judges: Paul Dix & Peter Huckle