By Mark W-J
May 2 2012
London Welsh and Bedford have been the losing semi-finalists in the first two years of the Championship play-offs, but one of us will progress to the final later this month. The Blues were inadvertently responsible for the decision to play the semi-finals over two legs after they came within three minutes and one dodgy refereeing decision of knocking Worcester out at this stage last season.
Bedford qualified as winners of Pool B, while we finished as runners-up to Bristol in Pool A, but we had identical playing records from our six fixtures. Each club picked-up four wins - two with a try bonus - and a draw, plus a single losing bonus point, but the Blues finished with 24 points to our 23 courtesy of an additional point carried-forward from the regular season by virtue of their second-place finish. And looking back over the recent history of meetings between the clubs it’s clear just how well-matched the two sides are. Our six meetings in the Championship have all been won by the home side, but the visitors have picked-up a losing bonus point on the last five occasions that we’ve crossed swords. The Blues hold the upper hand after our two games in the regular season this term by an aggregate margin of 46-43, although we’ve outscored them by five tries to four, whereas last year the aggregate score was 41-41, with each side scoring five tries, two conversions and four penalties over the course of 160 minutes. The first Championship game, on 3rd October 2009, produced our biggest win over the Blues in 26 league meetings, although the fact that that 28-17 scoreline is the only time we’ve beaten them by a margin of more than one converted try is something that we may need to rectify if we are to continue our journey to the top flight this year. The overall series began at Goldington Road on 12th November 1892, and to-date each club has won on 52 occasions, with a further nine games drawn.
The Championship Dream Team, voted for by the coaching teams of the twelve clubs, was published in the Rugby Paper last week, and our two clubs contributed just a single representative, Bedford winger Josh Bassett. Despite only turning 20 in March, Bassett was the division’s top try-scorer in the regular season with 15, two ahead of the Pirates’ David Doherty. He touched down in eight consecutive matches in the autumn, showing the form which resulted in a call-up to England U20s for their Six Nations campaign, and he was this week named in the squad for this summer’s Junior World Championships in South Africa. The Blues’ top points scorer this season - as he has been for six consecutive years - was the irrepressible James Pritchard, who has now scored over 2,000 points for the club in eight seasons of league rugby.
Despite using 44 players in the 22 games of the regular season, Welsh have the most settled-looking line-up of the four semi-finalists. Nine players started all six play-off pool matches, while a further five were included in the matchday 22 on each occasion. One player who has dropped out of the reckoning entirely is former Bedford full-back Edd Thrower. He was the Blues’ top try-scorer last season with fifteen, but having played in thirteen of our opening fifteen games this season he’s only made a solitary appearance since the 13-13 draw with Esher on Boxing Day, scoring a try - his sixth of the season - in the midweek game with Doncaster, a game for which Lyn Jones made 12 changes following the win at London Scottish three days previously. He’s not the only player to have made the journey down the M1 in recent years, with both Mark Harris and Nic Strauss enjoying brief spells at the Welsh after leaving Goldington Road. Two players who had loan spells at ODP have settled at Bedford this year following summer moves from London Irish. Flanker Jon Fisher made twelve league appearances (six starts) in two spells, scoring his only try for the club on his debut at Birmingham Solihull in December 2009, while Jamie Lennard kicked 42 points in four Championship appearances last season. Fisher missed 18 games after breaking his foot at Bristol on 1st October, but is the only Bedford player to have started all six play-off pool games, while Lennard is their second-highest scorer with 93, having kicked 76 points in seven appearances while Pritchard was at the World Cup.
As mentioned earlier, after falling at the penultimate hurdle in each of the last two years, one of our clubs will make that giant leap to the play-off final, to be played over two legs later this month. In the past two seasons, the team who have knocked the Blues out in the last four have gone on to win promotion to the Premiership. Not that we’re getting carried away. Not yet, anyway.