London Welsh’s winning run came to an end at Goldington Road after a pulsating finish saw the width of a post deny the Exiles a share of the spoils.
In a typically full bloodied encounter with Bedford Blues, Welsh trailed by six until Joe Ajwua muscled his way over from close range. It was just reward for a sustained spell of pressure from the visitors, as was Alex Davies’s conversion to edge the Championship leaders back in front, 21-20, with eight minutes to go.
Frustratingly that hard work was undone by the immediate concession of a penalty to Mike Le Bourgeois, and Jake Sharp’s opportunistic try seemed to seal a memorable victory for the Blues.
However, Kevin Davis crashed over to leave Davies with a touchline conversion to secure a draw for the Exiles with the last kick of the game.
The Welsh scrum half celebrated as his strike sailed high towards goal, but crucially the referee’s assistants disagreed. It was a tight call, but Welsh’s winning start to the season was over.
Playing with fire in their belies, and no little imagination, Bedford belied their poor start to season, as Welsh knew they would. Games between these two have never anything other.
But for Welsh the frustration will come not from seeing their 100 per cent record ended, but the manner in which the defeat came - the Exiles the architects of their own downfall at times. None more so than when missed tackles allowed Patrick Tapley to cross twice in a three-minute first-half spell, while Sharp’s late score came from a Welsh error.
Defeat will hurt but with the British & Irish Cup returning to take centre stage for the next two weeks, Welsh will have to keep their powder dry until London Scottish visit the Kassam Stadium on December 21 to put this one straight.
Attacking down Goldington Road’s prodigious slope in the first half, Welsh were given the perfect start when sloppy play by Blues gifted the Exiles an attacking platform. The visitors would settle for three points from the boot of Davies.
Bedford responded immediately, however, via a Le Bourgeois penalty from a scrum in front of the Welsh posts. The tit-for-tat penalty shootout continued when Davies landed the pick of the bunch from close to the left hand touchline to restore the away side’s lead.
Mark Atkinson found a great touch deep inside the Welsh 22, but the Blues pulled down the lineout and Welsh took full advantage of their let off. Finding touch from the resulting penalty, Welsh attacked with pace and purpose. Mitch Lees punctured a hole before quick hands from Seb Stegmann, Tom May, Gordon Ross and Sonny Parker sent Nick Scott over in the corner.
Welsh should have added a second when Carl Kirwan dived on a loose ball in the middle of the park and Sonny Parker ghosted through a gap. Seb Jewell was held up just short and an unusual lack of composure by Welsh saw a promising position peter out with a forward pass in the opposite corner.
Atkinson pinged a penalty right into the corner when the away side were again penalised at the scrum, but the Welsh defence withstood the Bedford catch and drive and a knock on in the backs allowed May to clear.
But it was a sign that the home side were beginning to stir. Le Bourgeois and Atkinson both found gaps in the Welsh defence, making yards and getting the Blues on the front foot, only for Atkinson’s pass to go straight into touch.
However, they’d injected some life into the Blues and moments later the home side were in as Tapley burst clean through to score.
Le Bourgeois converted to bring Bedford to within a point, and with their tails up Tapley outpaced the Welsh cover to score from his own 22. It was a special finish. Le Bourgeois added the extras and in the space of three crazy minutes, Welsh had seen their eight-point lead turned into a 17-11 deficit.
While both tries were equally well finished by the pacey Bedford winger, both owed much to missed tackles by Welsh.
Davies had the chance to cut that deficit, but the usually dead-eye Welsh goalkicker was off target – everything it seemed was now going the way of the home side.
However, Atkinson then saw two ambitious quick-fire drop goals attempts fall short, with Le Bourgeois then wide with a penalty attempt in a frantic end to the half.
Welsh, though, would have the final word as Davies landed a penalty with the last kick of the half to go in 17-11 down.
Tom Jubb nearly gave the Blues the perfect start to the second half as he looked clear, only to be called back for a forward pass by Atkinson. Belaying their start to the season, the home side were oozing confidence.
Davies’s charged down box kick led to Welsh being caught offside and gave Le Bourgeois the chance to restore Bedford’s six-point lead. The full back duly obliged and only alert work by Jewell prevented Tapley from completing his hat-trick, after turnover ball was kicked ahead by Le Bourgeois, but Jewell beat the winger to the touchdown.
Sensing the chance to take the scalp of the league leaders, the home side were warming to their task – some of the crunching tackles put in were testimony to that. But not for the first time this season Welsh’s bench would play its part.
Beginning to dominate territory and possession, Welsh were cranking up the pressure, but getting little change from a fiercely committed Bedford defence.
Jewell’s perfectly weighted kick forced James Short to take the ball over his own line, with Stegmann breathing down his neck, and Ollie Stedman was held up over line by Sharp.
May and Stegmann both then threatened before a soft penalty for throwing the ball away allowed Welsh to keep the home side pinned in their own 22. This time they would find a way through, via Ajuwa, with the winger driving over from close range.
Davies converted but Welsh celebrations were frustratingly short-lived as all of that hard work was wasted with the immediate concession of a penalty to allow Le Bourgeois to kick Bedford back in front. If he was nervous, the full back didn’t show it.
All then seemed lost when Sharp pounced on a poor pass meant for Ross that bounced short and sat up perfectly for replacement to collect in his stride and sprint clear. Crucially Le Bourgeois couldn’t convert, however, and that left Welsh with a glimmer of hope.
Despite the home crowd baying for the final whistle there was still time to play. Welsh made ground through Stegmann, and set up a grandstand finish when Davis powered over. This time, though, Davies couldn’t come to Welsh’s rescue.
Bedford Blues scorers:
Tries: Tapley (2), Sharp; Cons: Le Bourgeois (2); Pens: Le Bourgeois (3).
London Welsh scorers:
Tries: Scott, Ajuwa, Davis; Cons: Davies; Pens: Davies (3).
Referee: John Meredith
Referee Assistants: Nicholas Cockburn & Chris Sharp