All roads lead to the Allianz Park on September 14 now and an eagerly anticipated clash with old rivals Bedford, after London Welsh completed their pre-season programme with victory over Henley Hawks on a glorious afternoon at Dry Leas.
Two wins and a draw was the return for Justin Burnell’s side from their three pre-season outings, and, of course, only a last-ditch Scarlets try prevented the Exiles from making it a clean sweep.
Arguably their fiercest examination was saved till last, however, as the Hawks offered a far tougher work-out for the Exiles than the final scoreline might suggest.
Indeed, for 30 minutes Henley showed exactly why they were crowned National League 2 South champions last May. Fiercely competitive at the breakdown and lively in the backs, they took the game to Welsh from the first whistle, asking questions of the Exiles.
It was the type of test that will stand Welsh in good stead for when the serious business begins in earnest against the Blues in two weeks time, as Burnell’s side far from had things their own way and had to earn the right to play by first winning the physical balance.
This they eventually did, to assert their authority with three tries in an 11 minute spell leading up to half-time to lead 28-5 at the break - a commanding position given the energy and intensity with which the home side had begun the game.
Liam O’Neill’s early half break was a sign of intent and the full back was then on hand to finish off after Alan Awcock had found a hole in the Welsh defensive line.
Three minutes in, the Hawks led by an unconverted try. You’d have got long odds at that point of them never again troubling the scorers. That they didn’t was to Welsh’s credit, although the visitors would have plenty more of Henley’s sting to draw before they could gain control.
For all of Henley’s good start, they were only ahead for six minutes. Gordon Ross nudged a penalty into the corner and the home side had no answer to the away side’s driving maul. Mike Denbee coming up with the ball and Ross added the extras.
But far from subduing the home side, Henley continued to put it up the Exiles until Joe Ajuwa fended off a succession of tackles to set up Mitch Lees to cross.
Ross converted and then kept Welsh on the front foot by taking play into the home side’s 22. Denbee was the unintended recipient of the Henley lineout with Rob Andrew offloading to the jinxing Tom May to go over.
The Exiles had drawn Henley’s fire and it was now the home side that was coming under pressure at the breakdown.
Welsh’s fourth try came in first half injury-time and again emanated from Ross giving his side field position from a penalty. Henley repelled the Exiles’ forwards initial attempt to drive their way over from the lineout, and indeed forced Welsh backwards.
But Alec Hepburn did the dirty work to secure possession when the ball squirted loose, and that allowed May to get Welsh back over the gain line before Lees burst through to touch down under the posts for his second try.
The second half brought wholesale changes for Welsh. Again it was Henley that started the livelier, although this time it was the Exiles that struck first. A flowing move ended with Seb Stegmann hauled down just short of the line, only for Ajuwa to finish when Welsh spread the play across the width of the pitch.
Welsh’s refusal to leak the home side a soft try saw Henley held up and after clearing the danger the away side showed great patience inside the Hawks’ 22 before engineering an opening for Rhys Crane to add try number six. Will Robinson, taking over the kicking duties from Ross, was unlucky to see the ball fall off the tee, prompting a hasty drop goal attempt.
Ollie Stedman rounded off Welsh’s win after Matt Corker, who’d made several impressive breaks during the second half, this time found an end product. Corker’s break and offload released Stedman, and the number eight just about had the gas to make the line.
Henley Hawks scorers:
London Welsh scorers:
Tries: Lees (2), Denbee, May, Ajuwa, Crane, Stedman. Cons: Ross (4), Robinson.
Referee: Greg MacDonald
Referee Assistants: David Proctor & Michael Cooper