London Welsh’s unbeaten start to the season came to an end at Monks Lane on Saturday as London Scottish came out on top in the battle of the Exiles.
The first in this season’s instalment in a four-part saga, Welsh will have to wait until their December 21 league meeting at the Kassam Stadium for the chance to level things up.
Two early Miles Mantella tries laid the foundations for Scottish to inflict a first defeat in seven outings on Justin Burnell’s Greene King IPA table toppers.
Scottish took advantage of Dante Mama’s sinbinning after Alex Davies had given Welsh the lead with a third minute penalty, but the centre’s try and the boot of the Welsh scrum half Davies ensured the home side trailed by just a point at half-time, 14-13.
Davies’ third penalty edged Welsh into the lead upon the restart, but an excellent kicking display by Dan Newton and a couple of long range strikes from Oli Groves saw Scottish home, despite Ben Pienaar crossing late on for Welsh to leave the result in the balance right up until the final whistle.
Amidst the unfamiliar surroundings of Newbury RFC’s Monks Lane, Welsh and Scottish did battle for the sixty-fifth time since their first-ever meeting in 1885. Just as then, it was Scottish that came out on top to pull within six wins of Welsh on the head-to-head.
Davies gave Welsh the lead, but a stray foot in touch from Joe Ajuwa would prove costly as Scottish found a way through from the lineout. Mike Doneghan, Jamie Stevenson and Jim Thompson sent Mantella over in the corner. Newton converted.
Welsh then lost Mama to the sin bin as the officials took exception to the way the centre left James Love on the turf, and Scottish took swift advantage. Oli Grove, on as a blood replacement for Love, broke through the Welsh midfield and race clear Mantella.
Newton converted but then spurned the chance to further extend the Scottish lead with a penalty attempt, and Welsh nearly benefited when Davies’ strike came back off the post. Ben Russell collected but was immediately swarmed upon by the Welsh chasers and some desperate Scottish defence saw Paul Spivey see yellow.
Welsh opted for the scrum not surprisingly given the performance of their pack so far this season, regardless of the personnel, but Scottish survived.
Mama returned to the fray but crucially Welsh were not able to make the inroads against 14-man Scottish, as Scottish had while the Welsh centre was off the pitch. Spivey returned with no damage to the scoreboard in his absence.
Welsh, though, would finish the first half strongly. Davies added his second penalty and then Mama intercepted in midfield. Although unable to make much ground, Welsh kept the ball alive and Billy Moss suddenly popped up behind enemy lines.
From there, it was always on, and although Ajuwa was hauled down in the corner, Mama was on his shoulder to go over from close range. Davies added the extras and just a point separated the sides at the break.
Six minutes into the second half, Davies edged Welsh back in front for the first time since his third minute penalty. It was a lead they held for 11 minutes before Newton fired over a brace of penalties. Davies replied to again leave just the bare minimum between.
Welsh had enjoyed the balance of play in the third quarter albeit without threatening to unlock a committed Scottish defence, but as both sides rang the changes in the final quarter the visitors began to edge ahead as the penalty count against Welsh mounted.
Newton and two long range strikes from Grove looked like they would be enough to secure a Round 1 victory for Scottish, but when London Welsh captain Pienaar drove his way over from close range at the death it looked like there might be a few anxious moments yet for Scottish to negotiate.
But James Buckland’s side made sure of the win when James Graham saw yellow with Welsh under pressure under their own posts, and Newton added his fourth penalty to seal the win.
Welsh head to Pontypridd next Saturday knowing that victory is a must if they are to stay in contention in Pool 2.
London Welsh scorers:
Tries: Mama, Pienaar; Cons: Davies (2); Pens: Davies (4).
London Scottish scorers:
Tries: Mantella (2); Cons: Newton (2); Pens: Newton (4), Grove (2).
Referee: Sean Gallagher
Referee Assistants: Dave Edmunds & Lionel Spooner