By Mark W-J
April 19 2012
The promotion play-off pool stages reach a bit of an anti-climax this week, with the top four from the regular season -Bristol,Bedford, Pirates and London Welsh - already confirmed as the semi-finalists. But the relegation battle will go to the wire, with Esher needing to score four tries and win by at least eight points at the Athletic Ground to save themselves and send London Scottish down.
Last weekend’s game with Bristol showed the inconsistencies which have dogged the Welsh all season. Among the positives were the myriad try-scoring opportunities which were created - as many as seven clear-cut chances in the first half alone - as well as the never-say-die attitude which saw us claim the decisive losing bonus point when all had seemed lost with barely ten minutes left to play. Throw in the fact that Bristol were unable to breach our defence in open play, and the timely return of talismanic skipper Jonathan Mills, and any ‘half-full’ supporter would have left ODP with a spring in his step. Yet for every positive there was an equal-and-opposite negative: the myriad try-scoring opportunities that were squandered, the disintegration of the scrum, two penalty tries and yet another yellow card, and the fact that we were perhaps fortunate to gain a solitary point from a game which should have been won by half-time. But the play-offs render these short-comings irrelevant: asBristol learned to their cost two years ago, you win nothing for finishing top at the end of the regular season. Next year it is expected that only the top four clubs will progress to the promotion play-offs, and in the three years of Championship rugby to-date, no club has qualified for the semi-finals having finished outside the top four in the regular season. Indeed, Welsh and Bedford will both be making their third appearance in the knockout stages; Bristoland Pirates their second.
Nottingham have now finished fifth in the league table and third in their play-off pool for three consecutive seasons. We’ve been drawn together in the pool stages for all three years, meaning that Saturday’s game will be our 12th meeting since the Championship structure was introduced in 2009, with Welsh having won six of the eleven games to-date. They kept their dreams of a semi-final place alive with a four try win at Doncaster last Saturday, and were left hoping that Bristol could stop us from taking the bonus point that would guarantee our progress at their expense with a view to securing their own place in the last four with a bonus-point win this weekend. That was a scenario that had a few Welsh supporters sweating midway through the second half last Sunday, so the Nottingham fans watching on TV must have been stunned by the fightback which saw us score 14 points in the final ten minutes. Regardless of the fact that this game is effectively a dead-rubber - unless Doncaster can end a run of nine consecutive defeats and become the first team to win at Bristol in over twelve months - the Nottingham players will want to finish the season on a high and to give the departing Sione Kalamafoni a rousing send-off. The Tongan No8, who was voted Man of the Match in his country’s stunning 19-14 victory over eventual runners-up France at last year’s World Cup, has made 30 appearances in two seasons at Meadow Lane, scoring ten tries in the process, but will be moving to Gloucester in the summer. The Cherry & Whites, who were hit by the resignation of Head Coach Bryan Redpath this week, have a good track record in the development of players from the second tier of English rugby over the years, with the likes of Akapusi Qera (Birmingham Solihull), Darren Dawidiuk and Will James (Pirates), Nottingham’s Tim Molenaar and Tim Taylor, and our very own Paul Doran Jones and Nick Runciman all becoming regulars at Kingsholm.
Whatever your views on the structure of the Championship season, you can’t escape the fact that the four semi-finalists are fairly evenly matched. Pirates are the only team we haven’t beaten this season, yet they were defeated twice by Bedford, who themselves lost home and away to Bristol, and regardless of who can or cannot actually be accepted by the cartel, there are going to be six very competitive matches next month. Our four games with Liam Middleton’s side have shown that we can compete with the best this division has to offer, and it would take a very confident person to predict who will emerge victorious at the end of May. Two years ago this week we beat Exeter in a play-off pool match at Esher; they recovered from that setback, which came on the back of an earlier defeat at Nottingham, to beat Bristol over two legs to gain promotion to the Premiership. Last weekend a bonus-point win at Worcester saw them confirm their participation in next year’s Heineken Cup, and if they were to beat Northampton at Sandy Park on Sunday then they would be assured of a place in the Premiership play-offs. That’s probably a little way off for the likes of London Welsh, but for now the dream lives on.