Round 5 brought the second home fixture of the 2022/23 season to Old Deer Park. The fixture again proved frustrating watching for supporters and coaching staff alike; but what a gane it was and Welsh will take many positives.
Having narrowly lost to the league’s 1st and 2nd placed teams in the last 2 rounds (but failing to secure any bonus points) Welsh found themselves 21-7 ahead in this Round 5 match.
However, the game would again agonisingly slip away from Welsh in the final stages!
The game started at pace on a lovely sunny autumnal day at the resplendent Old Deer Park. Welsh were able to field the returning Ed Couzens in the 2nd row, the 6’8 giant having been out of 1st XV action since a concussion at RAMS in pre season. Andy Black also returned to the starting lineup having been drafted in late for Griff Whitson who failed a late fitness test – Jack Burnett replacing Black on the Welsh bench.
Injuries were again a growing concern ahead of Round 5 with fully 11 1st XV squad members unavailable through injury or absence. A thought for Jacob Butler who misses his 3rd game as he remains with his family following the sad loss of Father Eddie.
The already injured Tom Williams, Jack Anderson, Myles Keane and Matt Pollen, were added to after Round 4 by Will Ponty, Kaid O’Neill and Sion Cowdy. These were in addition to the late withdrawal of Whitson, Rhys Howells (wedding day), Hywell Williams and Ben West (who is yet to feature this season- but may return in Round 6).
Despite the injury list Welsh made a bright start in what was a lively opening 20 minutes. With 2 mins on the board no.10 Dafydd Manley capitalised on a Havant offside slotting a penalty from 22m. The Welsh early lead lasted just 2 minutes as a strong Havant pack (a theme of the day) responded immediately with good pressure from the restart winning possession. The substantial Havant pack powered over with a rolling Maul for a converted try. Welsh trailed 7-3 with 5 minutes on the clock.
Welsh looked comfortable though and played the territory and percentages well in opening exchanges. Tactful kicking and a strong defence heralded 2 quick penalties for Welsh which Manley gladly converted; The latter being an outrageous effort from almost the half way line. Welsh led 9-7 after 10 minutes.
This was probably Welsh’s best segment of the game: defence was up to any Havant attack and Welsh looked threatening on the counter. Excellent skills and strength on display from new signing Tololima Savaiinaea (Lima) in his 3rd appearance for the club, switching to centre for the day from his normal position on the wing.
That said, Havant’s powerful and organised from 5 used the maul to brutal effect. However, it was in defending a powerful drive that Welsh found their next score!
On 24 minutes Havant spread the ball wide having marched Welsh some 20m with the above mentioned Maul. However, Osian McAvoy at 15 showed excellent anticipation to not only quell the attack but snatch the ball away in an interception that would see the 15 run the length from his 22m to score under the posts. Manley added the extras and Welsh led 16-7 after 25 minutes.
Welsh were very much in control of the game at this stage. A deep restart into the Havant 22m and good pressure, meaning that Havant could not exit cleanly.
After several phases Welsh forced a knock on from the visitors and a Scrum in their 22m.
Ben Bodinham with quick ball was able to pick and drive and found himself clean through on 30 minutes for his first try for the club and the Exiles 2nd of the day! Manly was unable to convert the try but Welsh led 21-7 after 31 minutes.
34 minutes introduced Sam Perry to Old Deer Park and his 1st XV debut; replacing the injured Jonathan Ilori on the Wing. Sam has played national league rugby before joining Welsh, with Dings Crusaders.
35 minutes brought the ominous Havant rolling Maul back to the fore! Inside the Welsh 22m and from the lineout, the visiting pack could not be stopped and forced their way over for their second of the day, which was unconverted.
Welsh lost their discipline at this stage and instead of playing for territory were enticed into an arm wrestle with the visitors. The end result bringing Havants 3rd try of the day in quick order following their second. This time through the backline and with the conversion being added. With 40 minutes on the clock the scoreline looked very different to 8 minutes earlier! Welsh led 21-19 and this is how the half would end.
At Half Time Welsh would have felt disappointed to have let Havant back into the game but remained confident of the win- especially when in possession and able to release the backline.
The first half optimism took a blow almost immediately as the second half got underway. Welsh failed to clear from the restart and coughed up possession in their own 22m. Havant used their pack again to good effect, sucking in the Welsh defence and inevitably leaving space out wide. Havant went wide and exploited the space with a try going to their right wing on the touchline- the conversion was missed but Welsh now trailed 21-24.
Welsh looked to bounce straight back and for much of the following 15 minutes looked the most likely. The cause was aided on 49 mins when Havant were penalised repeatedly for numerous infringements and the referee finally lost patience- Havant with a yellow and down to 14.
Welsh kicked to the Havant 22 but the lineout was lost, this was in fact repeated 3 times in the next 10 minutes with Welsh losing the resulting line out in the 22m each time. The moment seemed to have gone when Havant survived the period down to 14 without incurring further points.
58 minutes was the end of action for both Rohan Pixley and Gareth Lewis, replaced by Rhydian George and Jack Burnett respectively.
The fresh legs added little to the turned tide as Welsh now began to chase the game.
It was in the said chase that Welsh pushed too hard on 65 minutes and conceded their 5th and final try of the day. A quick penalty inside the Welsh 10m outfoxed all and the converted score left Welsh trailing 21-31 with 10 minutes remaining.
The Exiles faithful were left scratching their heads at the score line in a game that Welsh had looked very comfortable in. Yet, Welsh now found themselves facing another game without any points (No bonus point try count and outside of a 7 point margin). The game was still very much in the balance though with 10 remaining, a frustrating and not ideal position though as Welsh were again (as in the previous rounds) needing to chase the game in the closing minutes.
Great character though did come to the fore: Welsh continued to play and put substantial pressure on Havant who eventually relented for the home sides 3rd try of the day in the last play of the game.
Camped in the Havant 22m the very impressive Lima Savaiinaea was finally rewarded for his excellent all round display with the final say! The punchy and yet elusive kiwi evaded the defensive line and crashed through the last ditch tackles to get his first try for London Welsh. The final conversion was missed.
Welsh, although still depleted, will come away from this game again believing that they should have taken the Win! It will be a relief that even though the result slipped away, Welsh were rightly rewarded with a losing bonus point.
In the last 3 Rounds Welsh have played 3 of the top 4 and arguably could/should have won all three of the games. With reinforcements on the horizon as injured players return en masse after the league takes a 2 week break, Welsh will be encouraged and looking forward to Round 6.
Welsh are next in action on 15 October away at Sutton & Epsom.
London Welsh Player of the Match: Ben Davies – who received his bottle of Devils Bridge Rum from our match day sponsors DEVILS BRIDGE RUM.
Tries: Osian McAvoy, Ben Bodinham and Tololima Savaiinaea.
Penalties x 3: Dafydd Manley
Con: x 1 Dafydd Manley