London Welsh kept their hopes of reaching the last eight of the British & Irish Cup alive with a hard fought victory over Pontypridd at the Kassam Stadium.
An entertaining encounter saw the Exiles outscored on the try count, three tries to two, but ultimately come out on top to set up an intriguing climax to Pool 2.
Four points behind Pool leaders London Scottish, Justin Burnell’s side head to the Athletic Grounds next Saturday knowing that top spot remains within their grasp, but that in all probability it will need a bonus point win if the Exiles are to knock Scottish off their perch.
Welsh and Pontypridd couldn’t be separated at half-time on Sunday, with Thomas Young and Joe Ajuwa traded tries.
The accurate goal kicking of Will Robinson edged the Exiles in front, and although Jordan Sieniawski crossed for Ponty, Ajuwa’s second try of the game proved decisive.
Garyn Smith’s last gasp try came too late to affect the result, but did secure Ponty what could prove a crucial losing bonus point.
Keen to build on their victory at Jersey, despite making 12 changes, Robinson gave the home side the lead in the fourth minute.
But Ponty’s reply was swift. Humberstone pushed a penalty into the corner and the pack forced their way over – Young credited with the score. Humbestone added an excellent touchline conversion and just as at Sardis Road, Welsh knew they were in a game.
Humberstone then increased the Ponty lead with a penalty after Tom Williams’s pass hit the retreating Nick Scott, who was in an offside position.
The home side’s biggest attacking threat was being carried by Ajuwa – the powerful winner forcing his way up the left hand touchline. Although it came to nothing, three minutes later he would make his first telling contribution.
From a penalty nudged into the corner by Robinson, the Welsh forwards had a go at battering their way over. Then trying their luck out wide, James Lewis was stopped short but Ajuwa picked up and not for the first time this season forced his way over from close range. Robinson converted.
It had been a cracking and at times feisty opening 20 minutes, but the second quarter would become scrappy, although both sides would spurn opportunities for further points.
Welsh, in particular, would be frustrated on a couple of occasions with the Ponty tryline in sight – knocks on the source of that frustration.
Ponty retorted with one opportunistic galloping break from Miles Normandale that also ended in similar fashion, while Geraint Walsh’s kick ahead, after a quick tap penalty, just had too much on it.
Welsh needed just four second half minutes to edge back in front – Robinson splitting the uprights – but Williams’s quick tap penalty nearly produced a second try for the visitors.
The scrum half combined with Humberstone as Ponty worked their way into the Welsh 22, with the forwards then taking over, only for Craig Locke to knock on when a try seemed there for the taking.
However, with the Welsh scrum under pressure Rob Lewis knocked on and Ponty set themselves for a five metre scrum, only for untidy ball to send the visitors scampering backwards at a rate of knots. Good counter rucking earned Welsh a penalty and the home side had emerged unscathed from that mini scare.
Four Ponty players were needed to eventually bring down Ajuwa, and after James Tincknell had produced a similarly bulldozing carry, Robinson kicked the Exiles into a six-point lead.
But Ponty continued to probe and a nicely weighted stab through forced Ollie Frost to go back and tidy up. But Welsh were penalised and this time they would not escape from the same corner as a few minutes earlier, as Ponty plied the pressure on – Sieniawski barging his way over by the flag.
Humberstone’s touchline conversion fell short and wide, leaving Welsh with their noses still in front, if only just, with 12 minutes to play.
Just a minute later, however, Ajuwa produced the try he’d been threatening all afternoon – ploughing through a succession of would-be Ponty tacklers to touch down. Robinson converted and Welsh finally had clear daylight.
But Ponty refused to yield. Humberstone’s sweetly struck drop goal was cancelled out by Robinson’s fourth penalty, but back came Ponty again and the away side salvaged what could prove a crucial bonus point from the last play of the game as they came up with the ball from a Welsh scrum, and Williams’s delayed pass sent Smith over.
London Welsh scorers:
Tries: Ajuwa (2); Cons: Robinson (2); Pens: Robinson (4).
Tries: Young, Sieniawski, Smith; Cons: Humberstone; Pens: Humberstone, Drop Goals: Humberstone.
Referee: Lloyd Linton (S.R.U)
Referee Assistants: Luke Haskins & Jonathan Healy