London Welsh picked a wet and miserable Leeds night to sound a warning shot to the rest of the league, that the Exiles are still a force to be reckoned with in this year’s Championship.
Rowland Phillips’ side got their campaign back on track with a hard fought victory at second-placed Yorkshire Carnegie, and in doing so turned party poopers to spoil Kevin Sinfield’s Headingley bow.
Following up their sensational cup win over Cardiff Blues Premiership Select, the Exiles led at the break thanks to Chris Elder’s concerted try, and edged further ahead when Joe Carlisle slotted home a drop goal.
Just as against Cardiff, though, there was more late drama in store, albeit at the polar opposite of the spectrum, as Joel Hodgson converted his own try to set up a tense final ten minutes.
The Exiles, though, held out to make it back-to-back wins since the opening two rounds of Championship action, and send reverberations around the Championship that they could yet have a say in the destination of this year’s title.
Head coach Rowland Phillips had stressed the need for Welsh to start as they’d left off against Cardiff, but the Exiles were nearly undone by one of their former number in the opening few minutes. Jonah Holmes somehow found a way through the first line of Welsh defence, only for Sinfield’s grubber to gift possession back to the visitors when the rugby league convert might have been better advised to retain possession.
Welsh could scarcely lay a hand on the ball, as the home side poured forward like a heavyweight boxer intent on not going the distance.
The Exiles, though, weathered the early storm like it was little more than a passing shower. Indeed, the first chance for points went Welsh’s way, as captain Seb Jewell summoned for Elder’s cannon of a right boot, only for the winger’s attempt to have the legs from half way, but not the direction.
The momentum had shifted, and surprisingly quickly. Yorkshire’s early gusto had been quashed. Warming to their task in the cold, damp and windy conditions, Welsh were treating the ball with the utmost respect, and subsequently looking composed and confident in possession.
Welsh’s defence meanwhile – a source of concern just a few short weeks ago – was now a grey wall. Ryan Burrows, as he has so often in the past, again showed what a dangerous ball carrier he can be, but Welsh’s defence was organised, disciplined and impenetrable.
After the positives of Pirates and the miracle of Old Deer Park, there was a definite air of self-belief and confidence about Welsh. The low of Ealing now a world away. Throw in a solid set-piece, and all that was missing from the Exiles’ first half display was some points.
Sinfield took centre stage as his pack won a scrum penalty, but the fly half couldn’t grasp his moment as his strike dipped under the cross bar.
Elder tried his luck again from distance, but with the same outcome, after the Welsh scrum earned a shot at the posts for the winger.
Showing great patience and continuity in possession, Welsh worked their way to within metres of the Yorkshire line, only for their work to be denied any tangible reward when they were deemed to have gone off their feet. No one inside Headingley could surely have begrudged the visitors had they now led.
Third times a charm? Not for Welsh in front of goal on Friday night, as Carlisle then saw his penalty attempt come back off the post.
Welsh left emptyhanded and a high tackle by Thretton Palamo allowed Sinfield to find the corner, only for Ben West to steal at the front of the lineout. But Welsh then gifted possession back to the home side, in the shape of an attacking scrum in the Exiles’ 22, only for the Welsh pack to get the shove on.
The minutes were ticking by, and still no breakthrough. It finally arrived in the 36th minute, and it was well worth waiting for as Welsh opened Yorkshire up from a lineout. Carlisle fed Palamo, but rather than again crashing up the middle or running down Sinfield’s channel, the USA Eagle found his fly half looping around. It had the desired effect.
The move created enough space for Carlisle to send the fast arriving Elder clean through and the winger cut inside, bouncing off the challenges, before twisting and turning his way over the line. Carlisle added the simple conversion, and might have extended the Exiles’ lead with the last kick of the half with a drop goal attempt. It never threatened the target, but was a useful sighter for later.
Yorkshire remerged for the second half full of purpose, but Welsh’s defence was in no mood to offer the home side a cheap way back in. Anything Yorkshire were to get, they would have to earn. This was fast turning into an accomplished and mature performance from the Exiles.
However, when Jewell was forced to turn and touch down a well-placed grubber kick at the expense of a five-metre scrum, it seemed as if the home side’s time had finally arrived.
But after the Welsh pack had been penalised and Yorkshire opted for another scrum, the Welsh eight did enough to disrupt, and when the ball squirmed out Rob Lewis hacked it away. It was a massive moment survived.
When Welsh were then awarded a scrum penalty, Carlisle took the away side into the Yorkshire 22 and after a few forays from his forwards, the ball was flung back to the fly half and he had time and space to bisect the uprights from bang in front. It was a snatch and grab raid of Special Forces precision.
Yorkshire seemed to feel the ghost was up, but it wouldn’t be London Welsh without some late drama. The home side took up residence in the Exiles’ 22 and this time they were not to be denied – Hodgson eventually finding a rare gap in the Welsh defensive line, before adding an excellent conversion to bring the home side to within three and set up a barnstorming final ten minutes.
Welsh, though, are a different animal to a few short weeks ago and the celebrations which followed one penalty earned on the floor, as Yorkshire frantically pressed, spoke volumes for the togetherness of this squad. As splendid as the miracle of Old Deer Park was, this surpassed it – this was much nearer the 80-minute team performance Welsh have been searching for.
They’ll endeavour to take a further step on the road to recovery next Saturday when Cornish Pirates travel to Old Deer Park (KO 2pm).
Yorkshire Carnegie scorers:
Tries: Hodgson; Cons: Hodgson.
London Welsh scorers:
Tries: Elder; Cons: Carlisle; Drop Goals: Carlisle.
Referee: Tim Wigglesworth
Touch Judges: Chris Sharp & Lionel Spooner