By Mark W-J
April 11 2012
London Welsh bring down the curtain on their 55th season at Old Deer Park on Sunday with the visit of Bristol. We may yet have two more home fixtures, should we progress through the knockout stages in the play-offs, but in the modern era the season runs well beyond the last Saturday of April, and the demands of the playing calendar sit uneasily alongside ‘olde worlde’ ground-share arrangements.
Bristol finished the regular season in first place, seven points clear of Bedford and Pirates with the Welsh a further seven behind in fourth. When they opened their play-off campaign with a 65-3 win at Doncaster few would have argued that they were clear favourites for a return to the top flight after three years in the Championship. Yet after four rounds they sit in second place in Pool A, two points behind Welsh, with two wins and two draws. Bizarrely, it’s their home form which has let them down, with first the Exiles (12-12) and then Nottingham (19-19) leaving the Memorial Ground with two points in the bag. It could, of course, been so much worse, with Bristol needing a penalty from former Exile Matthew Jones from the last play of the game to take a share of the spoils last month. The irony is that despite failing to win either of their home games in the play-offs, Bristol are the only one of the 72 senior clubs in England who are unbeaten at home in league rugby this season - their last defeat at the Mem came in the fourth round of last year’s play-offs, when we scored five tries to two in a 36-14 victory. The win at Doncaster in round one was their biggest victory on the road in 25 years of league rugby, surpassing the 55-3 margin at Orrell on 9th April, 2005, as they earned promotion back to the Premiership for the second time.
Our draw in the West of England four weeks ago was, of course, the second time this season that we’ve travelled back up the M4 with two points after surrendering the lead with the clock in the red (to use the modern vernacular). In October we led for 79 minutes following Rob Lewis’ opportunistic try, only for Jack Tovey to draw the scores level in added time, allowing Matty James to slot the decisive conversion. Centre Tovey is Bris’s second-highest try-scorer with ten, one behind winger George Watkins, who scored a brace against us that night, while the leading scorer in the play-offs in London Welsh winger Nick Scott, with five. Scott - who Bristol fans will be disappointed to hear is on-loan from Bath - has scored five in six appearances since joining at the end of January, including a hat-trick at Doncaster last time out, but crossed only four times in 32 appearances as a teenager for Newbury as the Blues suffered back-to-back relegations in 2008-10. Alex Davies is currently second in the points-scoring charts for the play-offs with 55 points from four matches, just four behind Bedford’s metronomic Canadian international, James Pritchard.
According to a report in The Independent over the Easter weekend, of the four clubs currently occupying the qualification places in the two promotion pools, only Bristol and Welsh have applied to be audited by Premier Rugby for acceptance into the élite should we fulfil arguably the only relevant criteria - winning the play-offs. There is no question that the Mem is fit for purpose - it has hosted top-flight rugby in 19 of the 25 seasons since the birth of the Courage leagues - but our own plans should we emerge victorious on the pitch are still unknown. Bristol’s situation is complicated by the fact that since last summer Exeter have been rumoured to be negotiating to purchase their ‘A’ shares in Premier Rugby, a process which is permissible as Bristol have spent two years outside of the top flight and which would result in the Chiefs gaining an additional tranche of funding from the central coffers. The downside for Bristol is that any extended parachute payments which are currently due to them as a fully paid-up member of the Premiership - albeit one currently residing in the Championship - would be lost; furthermore, should they gain promotion to the Premiership having lost control of their current shareholding they would become the poor relations, as Leeds, Worcester and Exeter have experienced over the last decade.
At a time when the future of one of the most successful clubs of the professional era is rumoured to be hanging in the balance, yet some of their domestic rivals are lobbying for an increase in the salary cap to supposedly enable them to compete in the Heineken Cup, you have to question the sanity of anyone who dreams of taking their place at the top table. London Welsh proudly announced that the crowd of 4,400 for our game with Leeds - which coincided with Wales’ visit to Twickenham - was a record for a league match at ODP, but nobody is under any illusion that at least 75% of those visitors were blissfully unaware of anything happening outside of the bars and marquees. Saracens’ top-of-the-table clash with Harlequins attracted a crowd in excess of 83,000 to Wembley, yet the vast majority were drawn by the twin attractions of subsidised tickets and a plethora of Pop Idol also-rans. Quins’ former Chief Exec, Mark Evans, never made any secret of the fact that his club’s ‘Big Game’ at Twickenham didn’t produce a profit, but was intended to build awareness of ‘the brand’, yet Sarries’ plans for a new 10,000 capacity venue suggest that they expect only 12% of the Wembley crowd to trek down to Barnet on a bog-standard Saturday afternoon. Madness.
A message on the official Nottingham Rugby website has urged all Nottingham fans to get behind Bristol this weekend, as their hopes of progressing depend on Welsh gaining not so much as a losing bonus point from our last two fixtures at home to Bristol and at Meadow Lane next weekend, while they take the maximum ten points from their remaining fixtures at Doncaster and against the Dragons. There is no love lost between Nottingham and Doncaster - it seems to run deeper than a tiff over the ownership of the legend of Robin Hood - and it seems that the management at Meadow Lane are confident not only of their own chances of collecting five points at Castle Park on Saturday, but also of the likelihood of Bristol extending their unbeaten home run when Donny visit them next weekend. Ergo, if they are to overcome either of the top two teams in order to qualify for the knockout stages they seem to have identified Welsh as the softer target. As if Bristol’s two ‘Get Out of Jail’ cards hadn’t given us enough motivation for Sunday…
Quote:don't do 'boost' but will of course 'lend.'Mark W-J
Does that mean you'll be boosting our support on Sunday...?
Quote:George Osborne in the first wave of the marauding party?elegia
would be war if there was free pasties at the mem!