London Welsh secured fifth spot in the Championship with a bonus-point victory over promotion hopefuls Doncaster Knights at the unfamiliar surroundings of Rosslyn Park RFC.
The Exiles’ five-point haul was enough to see Rowland Phillips’ side leapfrog Jersey in the table, coupled with the islander’s comprehensive defeat at home to Yorkshire Carnegie
Nic Reynolds marked his 50th appearance for Welsh with a try to open the scoring and with Doncaster in yellow card country the Exiles’ pack took full advantage to force a penalty try.
Paul Jarvis pulled one back for Doncaster, who certainly hadn’t headed south just to go through the motions before their semi-final showdown with Yorkshire, but Guy Armitage’s solo try on the stroke of half-time gave the Exiles a commanding 17-5 lead.
However, brother Bevon Armitage reduced the gap and Oliver Bryant’s try saw the home side edge ahead for the first time in the match. Elder, though, finished off a lovely Welsh move for what would prove the match-winner, and despite the Knights laying siege to the Exiles’ tryline at the death, Welsh held out for the win to extend their recent good run to just one defeat in their last ten matches.
Picking up from where they’d left off against Cornish Pirates, the Exiles started on the front foot. Matt Corker stole Knights lineout ball and a high tackle allowed Olly Barkley to find the corner, with Reynolds getting in amongst the forwards to touch down from close range.
If Clive Griffiths’ side had nothing to play for, having already locked down second spot, it didn’t show - the Exiles surviving an intense spell of pressure and several Doncaster catch and drives, as the Knights threatened an immediate response.
But the Doncaster attacks kept coming and they seemed in when Jarvis was released down the left, only for the winger to pass into touch when perhaps assuming there was a teammate overlapping outside him.
No reward for Doncaster for all of their pressure, possession and territory, and they were then dealt a blow when hooker Viekoso Viliame was yellow carded after tempers flared.
The Welsh pack had already laid down a marker in the scrum and the pack produced the Exiles’ second try. Doncaster could count themselves unlucky to get a hand to Welsh lineout ball just five metres from their own line only to be forced to concede a five-metre scrum, and after two Welsh scrum penalties Richard List saw yellow.
Confusion then reigned as to whether Viliame’s sinbinning had ended and whether the Knights should be defending the next scrum with 14 or 13 players. Fourteen was the outcome after a prolonged touchline debate, but it mattered not as a third scrum penalty brought a penalty try. Barkley converted.
This time Doncaster did manufacture a response. Having come close when Bryant drew two men, only for his pass to Jarvis to instead find touch, the Knights created an overlap on the left and Jarvis went over. Flockhart’s conversion attempt hit the post.
But Welsh hit back on the stroke of half-time. Guy Armitage had been the difference between the sides at Castle Park on the opening weekend of the season – the centre crossing for a hat-trick – and again he demonstrated his finishing ability as he took his try scoring tally in the Championship this season to ten, as he fended off all comers, including brother Bevon, to touch down.
Barkley, who made the initial break to get in behind the Knights defence, couldn’t add the extras but Welsh still took a more than useful 17-5 lead into the break after a half in which the Exiles had had to absorb much pressure, but taken their chances.
Welsh might have taken a giant step towards making the game safe within three minutes of the restart, as Guy Armitage again broke and the Exiles threatened. But the centre couldn’t find Elder on his inside, the ball went loose, and Doncaster swept down field with Bevon Armitage eventually touching down in the corner. Flockhart converted well from the touchline.
Welsh made a quadruple change as the game started to open up, including the sight of Richard Thorpe leaving a professional rugby pitch for the final time after a long and distinguished career.
Doncaster then hit the front for the first time when Bryant intercepted and went 70 metres, with Flockhart’s conversion edging the Knights into a two-point lead.
It was short-lived, as a fascinating contest soon swung back in Welsh’s favour as Barkley went on a looping run and Guy Armitage and Reynolds combined to send Elder racing away to touch down under the posts. Barkley did the rest.
Seventeen minutes still remained and it seemed inconceivable that we had seen the last of the scoring, but Elder’s try would prove to be the match-winner, although not before Welsh had put their supporters through the wringer one final time this season.
Twice Bryant pushed penalties into the corner and twice the Doncaster pack tried to muscle its way over the Welsh line, only to be twice repelled as if the Championship title depended upon it. When they were eventually forced infield, great work on the floor by Alex Woolford won a penalty and Barkley was able to alleviate the pressure by finding touch. Lineout secure, the Welsh fly half then fired the ball out of the ground and on to the South Circular to cue the final whistle.
While Doncaster move on to the Championship semi-finals, for Welsh it was a statement of intent for 2016/17, which now can’t come around soon enough.
London Welsh scorers:
Tries: Reynolds, Penalty Try, Armitage, Elder; Cons: Barkley (2).
Doncaster Knights scorers:
Tries: Jarvis, Armitage, Bryant; Cons: Flockhart (2).
Referee: Andrew Jackson
Touch Judges: Michael Patz & Brian Ravenhill