In this first full season post the pandemic hiatus, it is fair to say that the season has at times felt long and the squad and coaching staff have had to dig deep.
Possibly the most challenging Round thus far came in Round 24 and the longest trip in the season calendar, to Chichester RFC.
The squad were already without the following through injury: Ben West, Matt Pollen, Sion Cowdy, Jack Anderson, Jack Burnett, Matt Williams, Jonathan Ilori & star performer Rohan Pixley; Paolo Peschisolido, Will Ponty & Ewan Gully were also unavailable, the latter two away at their belated graduation from Swansea University.
The mounting injuries had given DoR Cai Griffiths an opportunity to test some promising players pushing through to 1st XV selection from the Druids; including Lewis Tucker, Iwan Humphreys & Josh Knight.
However, on the morning of the game Tom Williams & Lewis Tucker also came down with illness and were unable to play. This situation heralded a late call for athletic back row Tan Chabata and promotion for mobile tight head prop Griff Whitson to the openside flank from the bench. Andrew Evans was added to the bench seeing the hooker enter a 1st XV match sheet for the first time this season. Needless to say, the preparation was less than ideal but something that has become an expectation in the post pandemic world. Despite the significant changes the Welsh squad is incredibly strong and opportunities were there to be taken. However, Welsh started the game with 4 front row in the pack!
Oaklands and Chichester RFC is a lovely setting and Welsh were greated with a friendly welcome and excellent facilities.
The match kicked off in stunning late spring conditions, a heavy travelling support (as ever) took the crowd to around 300.
If Welsh had been unsettled by the changes in personnel you would not have known! A ferocious start to the game by Welsh took Chi by surprise and from the KO Welsh regathered and pinned Chi deep in their own 3rd. With only 2 minutes on the clock strong running from impressive Cardiff Met graduate Iwan Humphreys in the centre carried him over for a try on his first start for the 1st XV. The conversion was missed by Osian McAvoy.
Welsh had clearly travelled to West Sussex in no mood for compromise. Chi were finding it very difficult to break Welsh down and to retain consistant possession. Welsh were finding territory easy to acquire and some abrasive and penetrative ball carrying from Andy Black and Griff Whitson were proving devastating on the Chi defence. The Welsh dominace up front led to tries on 10 mins as 6’9 giant Ed Couzens stretched to cross, and 17 mins as the overpowering Welsh pack were awarded a penalty try; the latter also seeing Chi reduced to 14 men via a yellow card. Welsh led 17-0 after 17 mins and it looked like the game would be all but over by half time.
Credit to a committed Chi side they clicked into gear and showed great resilience against the tide to cross for a try of their own on 30 mins as the rut had been significantly slowed. 19-7 after 30 mins.
Any suggestion of a Chi resurgence was quashed in a devastating final 10 minutes of the half as Welsh moved through the gears and new combinations clicked, with players clearly intent on seizing their opportunity in the 1st XV jersey. The backs looked impressive in this period and three tries from Adam Nixon, Tom Hunt and Chris Lilly were added for Welsh to lead at the half 40-7. Chris Lilly with possibly the most impressive of the tries in the half as the Irish u21 International showed pace and power to outstrip the Chi defence and carry 3 players over the line with him.
It was an impressive half from Welsh with the new recruits into the match day XV showing their ability and the strength in the Performance Squad as a whole.
Welsh started the 2nd half very much as they did the first, with a quick Try. They say that scoring is a habit and it is very much looking that way for exceptional pace man Tom Hunt. Tom had been the top try scorer for 2 years in a row in London South Premier (National 3) prior to joining London Welsh and the Welsh faithful have certainly seen why this season. In full flow there are few that can handle the mix of pace, power and dynamism that Hunt possesses in his game and the winger added his 2nd of the day and 9th of the season. McAvoy adding the extras and Welsh led 47-7 after 47 minutes.
With the result no longer in doubt Chi came back into the game and they were impressive in the second period. Two tries followed for Chi as they chased a try scoring bonus point of their own – tries on 50 mins and 58 mins were both converted to leave the score at 47-21.
Welsh passed the 50 mark on 60 minutes as debutant Josh Knight released Chris Lilly for his second of the day, which was converted.
Chichester were not to be denied their bonus point though and they kept firing away at Welsh for the full 80. On 70 minutes they crossed for their 4th try and bonus point bit the conversion was missed. Welsh led 54-26.
The final try of the game brought up a hat tick for Tom Hunt and his 10th try of the season; a score that took him to the top of the 2021/22 try scoring charts one ahead of fellow back 3 and unavailable player Paolo Peschisolido.
A very exciting match in which Chichester played no small part, ended London Welsh 59, Chichester 26.
With promotion already secured and so many players missing, this match provded a great opportunity for Cai Griffiths to test the strength of the squad and to look at some exciting players with next season in mind. There were stand out performances from the returning and out of position Griff Whitson, the ever reliable Chris Lilly, Mike Griffiths in the tight and Adam Nixon ever controlling at 9. A mention in despatches for debutants Iwan Humphreys and Josh Knight who continue to impress.
The Player of the Match award could only go to Tom Hunt after snatching a hat trick; Tom is dominant at this level and we very much look forward to seeing him in action next season at National League level.
Welsh now move on to the final game of the season against Battersea Ironsides, a match that Welsh will play at Grasshoppers RFC on 23rd April. Welsh are now assured a second place finish in the league as they cannot catch leaders Camberley, or be caught by 3rd placed Medway – all three sides already having been promoted.
Scorers: Iwan Humphreys, Penalty TRY, Ed Couzens, Adam Nixon, Chris Lilly (x2) and Tom Hunt (x3). CONVERSIONS: Osian McAvoy (6 cons) (1 awarded via penalty try).