Round 6 brought a trip on the road to Rugby Lane, Sutton and a first ever meeting (the third of the season so far!) between the Exiles and Sutton & Epsom.
It is Important to start the match report with a recap of the injury situation! Director of Mens Rugby Cai Griffiths will certainly hope that this Round 6 match will represent the height of the seasons injury crisis! Against that back drop the Exiles entered the match with the following: Jack Anderson (Knee injury Round 3 out for the season), Adan Cole (Fractured Skull, Round 3 – Retired), Griff Whitson (Ankle, Round 4, short term injury), Gareth Lewis (Leg Round 5, short term), Ben Bodinham (Unavailable), Ben West (yet to play this season but available as of Round 7!), Ed Couzens (back, returning for Round 7), Sion Cowdy (away with the Irish national 7s team), Rhys Howells (His wedding and honeymoon), Ewan Gully ( Back, Short term injury), Jacob Butler (compassionate leave following the death of Father Eddie), Conan Osborne (Broken Collar bone, on international 7s duty with Jamaica), Mike Griffiths (Back, Yet to appear this season) James Smith (Fractured Shoulder – Out for the Season, Round 2).
Sadly, and in addition: Welsh lost two big players for good this week in the shape of 6’4 and 6’5 second rows Will Ponty and Tom Baldwin. Tom holds the exiles appearance record since project reset in 2017 but repetitive knee problems and a recent concussion have forced the retirement of the exiles stalwart. In addition, Will Ponty who joined Welsh from Swansea University in 2021, has been forced into retirement at the age of 24 with concussion. With these two most recent blows Welsh in all had 16 players unavailable from the performance squad in Round 16 – which is unprecedented.
The above aside Welsh entered Round 6 feeling that they perhaps could and should have won their last 3 matches, all against top 3 opposition in pre kick off table standings. A good showing in Round 5 against Havant (in which Welsh led 21-5) only brought a solitary losing bonus and Welsh undertook the short trip to Sutton in a mood to rectify the points lost in previous rounds.
With the injury position, full back Osian McAvoy moved to 10 with Daf Manley shifting along the line to inside centre. Kiwi star Lima Savaainaea continued at outside centre on sabbatical from his normal role on the wing. Dylan Casella came in at full back for only his second 1st XV appearance and his first in 3 seasons. Hywel Williams came in at 9 and it was great to see the return of last seasons number 8 Tommy Williams who made his first appearance of the season having overcome his long term back issues (a piece of good injury news !!). James Downing (2nd XV Captain) made his debut in the 1st XV starting at second row. On the bench Max Brewer also appears in the 1st XV line up for the first time and won his debut off the bench.
Sutton have had a very similar start to the season to that of the exiles, in the first 5 games they have achieved only 1 victory, although that did come at home against Brighton and by a commanding margin.
Sutton kicked off proceedings kicking deep into the Welsh half and in blustery and cold autumnal conditions. Welsh applied great pressure in the first 15 minutes, playing the entire period (give or take) in the Sutton half. There were several promising attacking moves with penalties leading to two attacking catch and drives in the Sutton 22. However, on the coldest rugby weekend of the year thus far handling proved an issue for both sides and Welsh could not make the ball stick; including the loss of a lineout in the Sutton 5m!
17 Minutes and an impressive Welsh scrum (considering the absentees) won a penalty which Manley sprayed into the corner for a catch and drive. Welsh actually went wide and looked to be over but Lima Sava was denied as the referee adjudged there to have been crossing in midfield.
Further on 26 minutes Welsh pushed another Penalty to the corner and a great lineout take from Ben Davies ended with Welsh over the line – but the ball could not be grounded and yet another escape for Sutton who restarted with a drop out under the posts. Shortly afterwards on 28 Minutes Lima Sava looked to be in once again but was held up just short – Welsh firmly banging on the door!
Handling became an increasing issue as the 1st half progressed and both sides struggled to put much further together until the stroke of half time when Manley had an opportunity to 3 points, a kick fully 40m out and on the angle. A valiant effort went just wide and the first half ended scoreless.
With the weather turning to rain, the Welsh faithful were reminded of the 2018/2019 season and the last time the scores remained 0-0 at half time, away to Old Streetonians – a game that ended without a score from either side!
The prospect of a scoreless game was quashed early in the second half but not in Welsh’s favour! On 43 minutes Sutton had come into the second half with much more intent and with Adam Nixon out of position at full back for most of the game, the Sutton Winger was able to outstrip the Welsh backline for a converted opening score. Welsh 7-0 down after 43 minutes.
Welsh reacted superbly to going behind and really took the game to Sutton over the following 10 minutes. Concerted pressure led to successive penalties and the latter of which led to the good old 15 man maul! With almost every player piling in to commit to the drive, it was Dafydd Manley at 12 who broke off to score; Manley converted his own try and the scores were level again after 55 minutes.
Welsh did not take their foot off the pedal and the following 10 minutes was dominated again by Welsh who were playing a much more controlled game than has been seen in the latter stages of recent Rounds. 60 minutes witnessed the highly unusual sight of back row Aussie Rohan Pixley coming on to the field into the back three to replace flyer Jonathan Ilori, needs must in an injury crisis! In reality there are few better players to bring on if you have to put a forward in the back line!
To Welsh’s immense credit the team were dogged to the man on 66 minutes took the lead for the first time! Lima Sava making another substantial break and fed Hywel Williams on his inside, the 9 had plenty to do but beat the last 2 cover defenders to cross for a score that the wind would not allow to be converted. Welsh led 12-7 with 14 minutes remaining.
Despite Welsh having their first win since round 2 in sight, Sutton had other ideas – themselves needing vital league points. The Sutton back line again proved clinical as they again spread the ball wide to find space on the outside and another try out wide, conversion missed and scores level at 73 minutes. A nervous and intriguing finish firmly set up.
Both sides deserve great credit for the astonishing ending to the game. The Welsh restart was caught in the wind and went dead! Sutton won a scrum penalty from the resulting midfield scrum and eyed the posts from distance. The excellent penalty in poor conditions put Sutton ahead 15-12 with the clock in the final minute of normal time; Welsh looking at another very unlucky defeat.
However, Welsh were not done, with time for the restart Welsh kicked to compete and did just that! Crucially Welsh won the penalty for holing on, 30 metres out and dead centre to the posts. Manley elected for and converted the penalty, an outstanding kick under real pressure and in sheeting rain.
With the last play of the game Welsh secured 2 points for the draw.
The result was probably a fair one on the day and given that Welsh were behind with the clock dead in normal time. However, Welsh will feel that the game should have been put out of sight in the first half. It will be very a pleasing result of DoR Cai Griffiths, with so many unavailable the squad showed great character solidarity to grind out what may be a critical result come the end of the season.
London Welsh move on to Round 7 and the 3rd game of the season at ODP. Round 7 will see the return of no less than 8 of the missing cohort of players as we welcome family day to ODP fo rteh first time this season; a big day and crowd is expected as the fabulous Cor Llundain perform at ODP.
Strong performances from Daf Manley out of position at 12 as he picked 10 of the 15 points. An excellent game again from Lima Savaiinaea who is proving an excellent addition. However, man of the match goes to former Wales u18 Ben Davies at 6 for a typically all action performance!
Player of the Match: Ben Davies
Tries: Dafydd Manley, Hywel Williams
Conversions: Daf Manley x 1
Penalties: Daf Manley x 1