On a night when Bristol guaranteed it would be they who finished the regular Championship season top of the pile, Welsh were left to ponder what might have been.
Under the cosh for most of the first half, the league’s meanest defence limited a buoyant home side to just one solitary try – George Watkins going over in the corner after the Exiles’ defence had been stretched one way and then the other just once too often.
Given the balance of play, however, it was a scoreline the away side would have settled for.
Mitch Eadie’s try, though, saw the game turn decisively in the home side’s favour and two tries in ten minutes from Ben Mosses saw Bristol secure the four-try bonus point.
But just how significant the remaining nine minutes of this game will on both sides’ season only time will tell, as Welsh crossed three times through Joe Ajuwa (2) and Chris Cook.
The second of those Ajuwa tries coming from the last play of the game with Welsh down to 14-men after flanker Richard Thorpe received a straight red card.
Pride restored for Welsh, and perhaps a bit more, for while Bristol rightly celebrated securing top spot it was a reminder that there is much rugby still to be played before the issue of promotion is settled.
Bristol’s preference for putting kickable penalties into the corner has been the source of much discussion this season, and it took less than a minute for Nicky Robinson to face that decision.
The Bristol fly half had little hesitation in opting for the corner, as in deed he would on four further occasions in the first half, but without reward on each occasion, although the first of these went to the TMO only to be ruled out for a double movement.
Bristol had started with intensity, pinning Welsh on the back foot. It was a position from which the Exiles would struggle to extract themselves from in the opening 40 minutes.
It was Bristol who were probing and asking the questions, trying all the time to pick a lock in this Welsh defence.
Luke Baldwin’s quick tap penalty released Watkins, only for a thumping hit from Tom May to force Jack Tovey to knock on.
Still Bristol kept coming, probing, looking for weaknesses, but every time the Welsh defence managed to come up with the answer.
Robinson pushed a penalty into the corner, only for Nathan Vella to strip the ball out of the tackle, and so it went on. When the home side finally seemed destined to get some reward for their pressure, Will Spencer pilfered the ball from a ruck under his own posts.
Finally, though, Bristol’s pressure would tell. Having won a scrum against the head, Bristol’s foray down the Welsh right sucked in enough red jerseys for Watkins to cross on the opposite wing. Robinson couldn’t add the extras.
It had taken 32 minutes for the deadlock to be broken, but this had been a no less compelling contest for that.
There was still time for Robinson to again push a penalty into the corner and ask his forwards to try and rumble their way over. The end was result was the same as the previous three, although this time Welsh could claim little credit with the Bristol lineout throw deemed not straight.
The home side would have to settle for a 5-0 half-time lead. It scarcely reflected their dominance of both possession and territory, but a combination of some excellent Welsh defence and Bristol’s turning down of 12 kickable points meant Watkins’ try was all that separated the sides at the break.
It might have been even less five minutes into the second half - Alex Davies’ penalty from half-way just dropping short.
Instead it was the home side that struck - Baldwin’s quick tap penalty eventually leading to Eadie going over in the corner. Again Robinson couldn’t convert, but the fly half was pulling the strings for Bristol.
The home side now had a head of steam up. Auguy Slowik’s chip over the top left Cook with no option but to carry the ball into touch, but Welsh would repel the drive and Cook’s tackle on Rhys Lawrence was enough to dislodge the ball from the hooker’s grasp.
Frustratingly, though, the Bristol pack won the resulting scrum against the head and Mosses burst through to the touch down under the Welsh posts. This time Robinson did add the extra two points and the home side’s lead was now a very healthy looking one.
It soon got even better, as Mosses went over for his second. Having found a way through the first line of Welsh defence, quick ball saw the centre go over from close range for the bonus point score.
Trailing 22-0 against a Bristol side being roared on a raucous home support, it seemed like it might be a very long 16 remaining minutes for Welsh.
To their credit, the Exiles refused to meekly throw in the towel and Cook muscled his way over from close range after Thorpe had smashed his way to within sight of the line. Davies added the conversion and
Four minutes later, Welsh were over again. Counter attacking from his own 22, Stegmann ran at the heart of Bristol before showing tremendous composure to twist the home side’s last two men inside and out, before freeing Ajuwa to race clear to touch down. Davies did the rest.
Almost immediately, though, Thorpe saw red for an altercation on the floor with Jason Hobson, and Robinson broke with routine to stick the resulting penalty between the uprights.
The last word, however, would go to Welsh and Ajuwa – the winger picking the ball up from a standing start before powering through two Bristol tacklers and then a third before going over in the corner. Davies converted.
It was a losing bonus point that guarantees the Exiles won’t finish lower than third in the Championship table, although all thoughts will be on Nottingham next Saturday at Old Deer Park and getting back to winning ways before the play-offs begin in earnest.
Tries: Mosses (2), Watkins, Eadie; Cons: Robinson; Pens: Robinson.
London Welsh scorers:
Tries: Ajuwa (2), Cook; Cons: Davies (3).
Referee: Luke Pearce
Referee Assistants: Phil Watters & Dino Maddern