London Welsh’s search for a first win of the season goes on after the Exiles’ opening excursion into the European Rugby Challenge Cup ended in defeat in Lyon, but Justin Burnell’s side couldn’t have given much more.
Trailing 21-3 in the first half the Exiles seemed on course for another heavy defeat, but Welsh chose the sun-drenched Matmut Stadium to answer any questions about the spirit within the camp after a tough start to the Aviva Premiership.
Two tries in as many minutes from Chis Elder and James Lewis before half-time left the home crowd stunned, and when Tristan Roberts’ penalty closed the gap further upon the restart, with Bogdan Balan in the sin bin, the game seemed there for the taking.
However, Welsh could make no further inroads and a yellow card for Seb Stegmann shifted the momentum in the home side’s favour. Despite some spirited Welsh defence, Lyon pressure finally told when Seru Sukanaveita broke through for the game’s decisive score.
Ultimately it was Lyon who took the spoils in this battle of last year’s second tier champions in England and France, and it doesn’t get any easier for Exiles with the visit of Bordeaux Begles – currently riding high in the Top 14 in third place – to the Kassam Stadium on Thursday evening (KO 7:45pm).
But result aside, after six gruelling rounds of Premiership action, Lyon was an opportunity for members of the Welsh squad to put their hand up, and several in pink did exactly that.
With the Matmat Stadium bathed in glorious sunshine, the first chance of points went the way of Welsh – Tristan Roberts’ attempt at the uprights, though, stayed wide right.
Lyon’s intent from the outset was clear, to catch and drive at every opportunity. They would get little change from the Exiles in that area however.
Instead the home side’s threat would come in the loose, in particular from turnover ball. Roberts’ clearance, after a Lyon catch and drive had been thwarted, only found his opposite number Stephen Brett and Kiwi set off on a mazy run before drawing Elder and releasing former South African scrum half Ricky Januarie to cross. Jerome Porical added the first of his four conversions.
Tails up, Lyon were looking dangerous. Captain Fabrice Estebanez ghosted through, only to slip, and then the centre’s crossfield kick was just overcooked, as the home side upped the tempo. Welsh were on the back foot, but their scrum was holding firm.
Lyon then doubled their lead when Estebanez gathered Franck Romanet’s kick ahead to touch down, with referee Claudio Blessano going back to brandish a yellow card in Rhys Crane’s direction for his tackle on Romanet in the build up. Welsh, though, would feel aggrieved, pointing to blocking in the build up. To no avail and Porical added the extras.
Roberts got Welsh on the board with a penalty but with the away side down to 14-men, Lyon exposed the Exiles out wide as Romanet slipped between two before rounding the last man for a fine solo score. Porical’s conversion left Welsh trailing 21-3 after 29 minutes and seemingly on course for another heavy loss.
But Welsh then stunned the home support with a double strike just before half-time. Welsh’s dominant scrum would provide the platform for the first – earning a penalty which Roberts used to good effect to take the Exiles into the Lyon 22. From there, the Welsh forwards worked their way to within striking distance before Roberts’ flat pass sent Elder over in the corner.
Moments later Welsh were in again; James Lewis picking off a pass as Lyon looked to spread play wide from a lineout on half way. Roberts added the conversion and the Exiles went in at the break trailing 21-15, and they were then given all the encouragement they needed upon the restart as another destructive Welsh scrum brought a yellow card for Balan. Roberts slotted the three points for good measure to close the gap to three.
Crucially, though, the Exiles were unable to take further advantage. Indeed, they even found themselves defending their own tryline. Eventually the home side’s pressure would tell, but only after Stegmann had been yellow carded, as Sukanaveita squeezed through a couple of Welsh tackles to claim the home side’s fourth try. Stretching the Lyon lead to ten points, it would prove the decisive score.
But Welsh might have set up a grandstand finish when Gordon Ross, Roberts and Crane carved through the Lyon defence, only for the final pass to find a Lyon set of hands when a Welsh try seemed a certainty.
On the back of a still dominant scrum, Welsh continued to press but without reward, and as the game opened up Nathan Vella saw yellow as Estebanez kicked through only to have his path blocked by the hooker.
Welsh had made 12 changes for this trip to the Matmut Stadium with Burnell calling it a chance for some to impress – he cannot fail to have been quietly pleased by what he saw.
Tries: Januarie, Estebanez, Romanet, Sukanaveita; Cons: Porical (4).
London Welsh scorers:
Tries: Elder, James Lewis; Cons: Roberts; Pens: Roberts (2).
Referee: Claudio Blessano (ITA)
Touch Judges: Giuseppe Vivarini (ITA) & Andrea Spadoni (ITA)