Welsh clinch place in Championship final
London Welsh survived a heart-stopper at Old Deer Park to reach their first-ever Championship final, where they’ll meet the Cornish Pirates.
The Exiles looked to have one foot in the final when Nick Scott capitalised on a mistake by Henry Staff to cross and give Welsh a 14-10 on the day and a 17-point lead on aggregate.
But Don Barrell cut the deficit with 13 minutes to go and then five minutes later hooker Neil Cochrane went over.
Captain and full back James Pritchard converted both scores and suddenly the visitors needed just a penalty or drop goal to take the tie in extra-time.
But with the nerves around Old Deer Park tested to their limit, Welsh held out though to reach the final.
Protecting a ten-point lead from the 1st leg at Goldington Road, given to them courtesy of their 13-3 win, it had all begun so brightly for the Exiles when Alex Davies stroked over a penalty in the first minute.
The home side had made a bright start, and were looking sharper to everything.
The visitors needed a try saving tackle from Pritchard to bundle Joe Aujwa into touch – the second time the Welsh wing was denied in the opening minutes.
Playing into the wind, Davies’ attempt from close to half way was short, but the full back did extend the lead soon after when Lennard was isolated.
Welsh were looking the hungrier and great work by Matt Corker and James Tideswell ended with another sight of the posts for Davies, and the Exiles suddenly had a 19-point buffer.
But after a slow start, Bedford were beginning to get a foothold in the game. Luke Baldwin took a quick tap penalty and chipped ahead.Too far as it turned out, but it was indicative of Bedford’s growing attacking presence.
Lennard turned down a kickable penalty to find touch, but the chance looked to have gone when Mike Denbee snaffled the lineout.
The danger hadn’t passed, though, and when the Blues regained possession they spread it across the pitch and Ollie Dodge crossed in the corner.
A try was awarded after a brief consultation between the referee and his assistant on the far side.
Pritchard converted superbly from the touchline, but Welsh had the chance to end the half with points when Hudson Tonga’uiha picked up from a ruck and got to within five metres, only for a slight knock on to stop Welsh in the tracks.
At half-time it was still advantage Welsh, though, with the Exiles leading 19-10 on aggregate.
That was cut by three within a minute of the restart by Pritchard. The away side would make a good start to the second half.
One passage of play saw the Blues inch their way from one 22 to the other, but just as they looked poised to strike Welsh turned the ball over and Ross kicked down field into acres of space and the foot race was on.
Staff had the head start on Scott, but as the Blues centre went to ground he slipped and the ball squirmed from his clutches. Scott hacked on, before collecting to score.
Davies couldn’t convert, but when the full back added his fourth penalty Welsh seemed to have one foot in the final.But to their credit, the Blues weren’t giving this one up and Don Barrell went over only for it to be chalked off for obstruction.
James Lewis thought he was away for an intercept try, only for play to be brought back for a Blues penalty with Welsh offside.
The pressure was building on Welsh, though, and despite a fantastic tackle by Max Lahiff to stop Barrell from going over the Blues made the pressure tell when Barrell went over from the resulting scrum. Pritchard converted.
The Blues kept the pressure on but a promising move looked to have fizzled out when Rae knocked on. Welsh momentarily stopped but the whistle never came, and Bedford hooker Cochrane forced his way over.
Just three points separated the sides on aggregate with eight minutes still to play. To their credit, Welsh kept their cool when all about them seemed to be losing theirs.
Despite a few nervy moments, the Blues would never quite get close enough to engineer a last-gasp drop goal attempt, and Welsh saw the game out to reach the final.
The sense of relief around Old Deer Park was tangible at the final whistle.