London Welsh earned what could prove a valuable bonus-point with a spirited comeback at high flying Yorkshire Carnegie, to move two points clear of Richmond at the foot of the Championship table.
Trailing 17-3 at the break to tries from Richard Mayhew, Ryan Burrows and Mike Mayhew, the Exiles were even further adrift when Joe Ford added an early second half penalty.
But digging deep, the Exiles showed the same character which had seen them put London Scottish to the sword on Christmas Eve at an emotionally charged Old Deer Park to drag themselves back into the game, and give promotion hopefuls Carnegie an almighty scare.
Capitalising on Oli Goss’ yellow card, Ben Vellacott darted over from a quick tap penalty with Glyn Hughes adding the extras.
When Ben West was sent to the sin bin late on, Hughes’ penalty brought Welsh into bonus-point territory, but despite a frantic and nervy finish the Exiles couldn’t conjure another score as they went in search of a draw. Even so, it could yet prove a hugely significant point for the Exiles.
Trying to recapture the intensity and emotion of Old Deer Park eight days earlier was always going to be a tough ask for Welsh, but the opening exchanges suggested no signs of a hangover as a bright early attack ended with Martyn Thomas being forced into touch.
It was the home side who struck first however. Having squandered a glorious chance following Tom Casson’s break, Ford pushed a penalty into the corner and a devastating catch-drive saw Richard Mayhew driven over. Ford converted.
The home side were exiting well and offering up few errors for the Exiles to seize upon. It was Carnegie who were putting together the greater sustained spells of possession, asking the questions and looking to play at every opportunity.
By the time the game reached the 20-minute mark, Carnegie had shown glimpses of what they could do, while Welsh had yet to spark.
The ease at which the Yorkshire catch-drive had sliced through Welsh was enough to raise the alarm bells when Ford pushed another penalty into the away side’s 22. The crisis was nearly averted when Freddie Clarke came up with an excellent lineout steal, but a knock on gave Carnegie another chance and from the resulting scrum the home side put together a concerted spell of pressure and Burrows forced his way over from close range, despite some heroic Welsh defence.
Welsh needed a response and it came within minutes. Lovejoy Chawatama burst through a gap and it needed the combined efforts of Chris Elder and Jonah Holmes to bring the powerful prop to ground with the line in his sights. A penalty on the floor, however, ensured Welsh didn’t leave emptyhanded, with Hughes bisecting the posts.
Carnegie, though, gave another example of their effective catch-drive to immediately wipe out Hughes’ strike and extend their lead to 17-3. Having tried to run the ball out of their own 22, only to be penalised for holding on in the tackle, Welsh could do little to halt the home pack as Mike Mayhew was driven over, after Ford had found the corner.
Just as against Scottish, the Welsh scrum was proving a potent weapon, but the visitors were coming under pressure in the lineout.
Half-time was welcome with the home side playing with real pace and intensity, and showing a willingness to play from anywhere. A real test for this ‘new’ London Welsh squad. One final dangerous foray from the home side was stamped out by the combined efforts of Clarke and Jesse Liston, and Welsh were able to head back to the changing room to regroup.
At 17-3 the visitors had much to do if they were to get something from this game, with their cause not helped by the loss of Seb Jewell, which meant Rob Lewis moving to inside centre to partner his twin brother James, with Vellacott taking over at scrum half.
The restart saw the home side waste little time in getting back into Welsh territory, and despite some more aggressive defence from the Exiles a penalty for not rolling away allowed Ford to extend the Carnegie lead to 20-3.
Carnegie had made a powerful start to the second half, but errors were creeping in to their game and Kristian Phillips gave a first real glimpse of his abilities with one half break.
The game was beginning to open up and that suited Welsh’s attacking back three, and only a superb tap-tackle stopped Robbie Nairn from adding another glorious solo try. The winger threatening to go all the way from 70 metres only to be brought to ground just short of the line, with Goss seeing yellow as the home side killed the ball.
The scrum, though, was turning into a fascinating battle and the home pack won a crucial penalty forcing Welsh to leave emptyhanded.
Needing to take advantage of their numerical supremacy, Vellacott showed his threat with a quick tap penalty before putting in a kick for Phillips to chase, which Elder had to touch down for a five-metre scrum.
It was now or never for Welsh, and having won a penalty at the scrum, the Exiles opted to tap and go. When Carnegie then infringed under their own posts, Vellacott was in under the posts in a flash with another quick tap, before the home defence even knew what was happening. Hughes converted.
It was timely, as Hughes’ conversion signalled a return to the fray for Goss. Welsh had left it late to take advantage of his absence, but take advantage they had.
Another Vellacott quick tap penalty and suddenly the atmosphere inside Headingley had changed. No fourth try had materialised for the home side and now there was a growing sense of anxiety amongst the home support.
The momentum was now with Welsh and Nairn just couldn’t quite take Thomas’ lovely flick on. It was now end-to-end action; Welsh now believing they could take something from the game, and Carnegie stung into life by Vellacott’s try.
Welsh’s scrum was still churning out penalties and it took the Exiles back into the Yorkshire 22, from which West was sinbinned for going off his feet on his Carnegie debut against his former club, and Hughes had a few hearts in mouths on the sideline as his penalty went in off the post. Over it went though and Welsh were within seven.
Cue a frantic final six minutes as both sides pressed. Welsh, though, had to settle for a losing bonus-point, but having been 20-3 down it’s one they would have been happy to settle for.
Yorkshire Carnegie scorers:
Tries: Richard Mayhews, Ryan Burrows, Mike Mayhew; Cons: Ford; Pens: Ford.
London Welsh scorers:
Tries: Vellacott; Cons: Hughes; Pens: Hughes (2).
Referee: Tim Wigglesworth
Assistant referees: Ben Blain & Simon Park