Welsh entered Round 22 and an away fixture at Farnham, knowing that just two league points would see them assured of a top 3 finish and thus promotion from London 1 to National 3 (yester year referenced as the national leagues).
Welsh could not afford to take anything for granted though. Farnham had been unlucky in many of their matches this season drawing many sides very close only to lose matches narrowly at the death. Farnham’s lowly 11th place in the league did not do them justice and DoR Cai Griffiths was well aware of this fact.
Welsh in truth have wobbled in the past month having been hit by key injuries and a drop in form at a critical time in the season. However, the squad that travelled to Surrey showed undoubtedly the strongest team that Welsh has been able to field in some time. There were returns for Mike Griffiths in the front row, Will Ponty and Tom Williams in the second and back rows, as well as a return for the influential Matt Pollen in the centre. In addition the game saw many players present in the same game for the first time in the second half of the season. It is fair to say that Welsh had returned almost to full strength and had arrived at Farnham to get a job done.
The first 20 minutes of the match certainly set the tone and Welsh largely put the game beyond Farnham in the early exchanges.
Welsh kicked into a relatively strong wind on a sunny day with a crowd of around 400. Farnham found the themselves deep into their 22 and struggling to exit after strong early Welsh pressure. Welsh tempo led to a series of infringements from Farnham and the last of which led to a yellow card for Farnham right wing Alex Chalke for a deliberate knock on just as Welsh were crossing the line; somewhat strangely though the penalty try was not awarded.
Welsh took immediate advantage kicking to the corner and winning the lineout 5m out. The ball went wide after 3 phases in the close and Osian McAvoy sent centre Matt Pollen over under the posts. McAvoy slotted the conversion to go with his assist and Welsh led 7 -0 after 5 minutes.
Welsh continued their early intent from the restart running in open play and quickly camping back down in the Farnham final third. There were a number of key occasions ons in this period as Welsh almost looked to be clear but final passes not quite finding their target. It was telling that during the first half Welsh only kicked the ball twice in open play!
The forwards were certainly not lagging behind the talented Welsh backline in ball carrying! Try no.2 came on 17 minutes as big ball carrying no.6 Jack Anderson broke the line and offloaded to fellow Swansea University alumni the 6’8 Ed Couzens who galloped all the way up to the Farnham 5m line. The damage had already been done at that stage and all that returning prop Mike Griffiths needed was his best salmon impression as he flopped over the line from close range. The conversion from McAvoy floated wide and Welsh led 12-0 after 17 minutes.
Unfortunately, Welsh lost Tom Hunt at this stage as the winger took a knock to his shoulder, replaced by Ealing Academy man Louie Groark.
Farnham had probably their best spell in the next 10 minute stage when they had a couple of opportunities in the Welsh 22. The home side showed good intent and commitment but just could not break down the resolute Welsh wall defence, a fact that proved a theme thought the game and despite Farnham returning to a full complement following the yellow card.
30 minutes brought the 3rd try for Welsh as the ever excellent Rohan Pixley made a break from inside his own half taking play right up to the Farnham 22 before the Australian flanker was tackled illegally and Welsh pushed the ensuing penalty to the corner for a 5m attacking line. Welsh are seldom held out for attacking lineouts this season and this again proved the case; Captain James Buncle orchestrating the rolling maul and coming up with the ball as the try was awarded. That was the influential Norwegian internationals 7th try of the season taking him to 3rd on the season try scorers list. The extras were missed by McAvoy and Welsh led 17-0 after 30 minutes.
Just as Welsh were boosted by the return to the field of Tom Hunt, they lost a big ball carrier in Jack Anderson who popped his shoulder AC ligament and left the field, replaced by Adan Cole.
Welsh spent the entirety of the remaining minutes in the half camped in the Farnham 22 but resolute defence from the home side frustrated the red tide who could sense the much desired 4th bonus point try. The Half Time whistle went with Welsh very much in control following a first 40 in which the home side were largely dominated by Welsh.
Welsh started the second half as they left off the first, on the attack. However, the first 10 minutes of the second half brought little reward for either side as Farnham looked to kick start their game by running from deep only to lose possession on several occasions as they looked to break out. In return, Welsh looked to capitalise on Farnham errors only to fall victim to their own handling errors.
However, the biggest moment of the day came on 49 minutes: Adam Nixon (who had kept the tempo high and game flowing to a very high standard all day from 9) broke twice in the same phase to find Rohan Pixley and then in turn he found club Captain Chris Lilly and the Irish Man carried all the way to Farnham 22. Two big carries from Adan Cole and then Tom Williams broke the home desperate cover and Tom Williams stretched to grab the bonus point try. There were absolute scenes amongst the travelling support as those in the know knew that the try meant a 4th promotion in just 4 seasons and a return to the national leagues for London Welsh. The conversion was missed and Welsh led 22-0 after 50 minutes.
Farnham heads had now dropped and Welsh turned the screw, running some great lines as backs and forwards looked in complete harmony – Welsh had not played this brand of complete rugby since mid December 2021. Mike Griffiths crossed on 65 minutes for his second of the day and McAvoy added the two points for Welsh to lead 29-0.
Fan favourite Andy Black entered the fray on 65, replacing Captain Buncle in the front row.
70 minutes and Welsh looked like they may score off every phase. Farnham found it almost impossible to exit their 22 and with a loose kick that found Jacob Butler, his quick feet and elusive style took him past three defenders before setting Groark free. The ball was quickly recycled and sent to the other side of the pitch for Chris Lilly to outstrip the defence and run the ball in from 20 metres. It is great to see the former Leinster man back to his back after a difficult season interrupted by injury. McAvoy added the conversion and Welsh had put a polish on the score at 36-0.
In truth Welsh left a couple of tries out there in the last 10 minutes as a number of opportunities went begging in the embers of the game. Welsh were in tight control of the game at this stage and on 77 minutes the tireless Rohan Pixley crossed for the final Welsh try of the day having the presence of mind to take a quick tap penalty and to ghost in untouched. The final conversion was missed.
It was the home team that would have the final say, and it was a cracker of a try! Camped on their own line Farnham turned over the ball and set off down field. A mixture of silky handling skills and pace ended in a length of the field breakaway try for Toby Salmon, nothing more than a dogged and skillful Farnham side deserved. The conversion was missed and the final score 41-5 to London Welsh.
A big thank you to Farnham who have an excellent club and proved the perfect hosts. This was ultimately a game that Welsh controlled from the first kick but a credit to the home side who never gave in and indeed played their part.
We will not wax lyrical here about the culmination of project reset and the heroics both on and off the field over the last four seasons. However, securing a fourth straight promotion is a meteoric achievement that all at the club could only have dreamt of whilst hovering over the edge of the abyss at the end of the 2016/2017 season and ejection from the English Championship. Welsh have returned to their roots and through strategic planning, the London Welsh careers HUB and reliance on an incredible name, brand and 137 year history we have rediscovered our core and community (all of which has been done without remuneration of any of the playing squad).
Player of the Match: a tough call on a day when the squad looked imperious to a man. Eye catching performances from Rohan Pixley, Mike Griffiths, Matt Pollen and Ewan Gully as all put their hat in the ring. However, it is another main man award for Adam Nixon as his relentless tempo, accuracy and clinical execution controlled the game from 9.
Welsh head back to Old Deer Park for Round 23 and the visit of Guildford as they look to keep the pressure on the top spot in what is looking to be a close run in to win the league.
London Welsh Try Scorers:
Matt Pollen, Tom Williams, James Buncle, Mike Griffiths x 2, Chris Lilly, Rohan Pixley
Conversions: Osian McAvoy x 3
Match Attendance 400