Jackson's last-gasp try gives the Exiles reason to believe
London Welsh 25 Exeter 24
A clear majority of rugby folk – nay, an overwhelming majority – still expect London Welsh to be 12th of 12 come season's end. So what? So this. The same majority assumed the Premiership newcomers would be occupying the same position right now, which is far from the case. By winning yesterday, in front of a small but increasingly vocal crowd, the Exiles lost their top-flight cherry and rid themselves of their inferiority complex into the bargain.
A close-range try at the death from the young No 8 Ed Jackson, converted by the substitute outside-half Seb Jewell, was enough to do the trick. And it was a pretty decent trick, in its own way. Two of the Exiles' exiles, the Samoan loose forward Alfie To'oala and the French prop Arthur Joly, were the principal architects of one last assault on the Exeter line and there was a thrilling muscularity about their rampage upfield. When Jackson, an intelligent footballer who knows how to put himself on the end of things, spotted a chink of light in the pile of bodies on the line and applied the crucial touch, it was no more than the home side deserved.
Certainly, there were few complaints from the visiting coach Rob Baxter, who was far more offended by the way his side lost than by the fact that they finished second. "I'm disappointed that people I consider senior players made poor decisions and conceded soft penalties – that we went miles off our game plan and lost our way," he said.
For Baxter's counterpart, the ever-entertaining Lyn Jones, this was a tiny glimpse of heaven. "If you'd told us before kick-off that we'd take a losing bonus point from this game, we'd probably have settled for it," he admitted. "Our first two games were against Leicester and Harlequins and while I don't like losing, I'd have to accept they were too good for us. This win is the result of those tough times. We're still not really sure where we are, if I'm being honest: we have players with us who weren't even in England four weeks ago. But confidence is everything, isn't it? This will do us a lot of good."
Not for the first time in their brief Premiership history, Jones' side leaked early points: 14 of them, to be precise. The game was less than five minutes old when Ian Whitten intercepted a pass from Tyson Keats, bounced the London Welsh full-back Tom Arscott into the dirt and supplied Arscott's brother Luke, who happened to be playing full-back for Exeter, with a simple scoring pass. On 10 minutes, there was an even softer try : a midfield bust from the Fijian centre Sireli Naqelevuki, a nicely timed delivery to Matt Jess, job done.
Yet London Welsh were able to introduce a South Seas-style surge of their own in the formidable shape of To'oala, who came off the bench early for the stricken Mike Denbee and proceeded to make dents all over the place. Among the biggest of these physical impressions was left on his own captain, Jonathan Mills, who had the serious misfortune to collide, nut on nut, with the hardest head in Christendom. Mills and Boom, you might say.
Somehow, Mills returned to the fray, which was more than could be said for the England flanker Tom Johnson, who left the field on a stretcher after suffering what looked like a comprehensive rearrangement of the ribcage. Johnson did his reputation no harm at all with a courageous performance against the Springboks in Johannesburg three months ago and had legitimate hopes of holding his place for the autumn internationals, but he may now have to reassess his immediate goals.
Even while Johnson was on the field, London Welsh were proving a handful. They recovered from their latest false start by claiming a penalty try from a rolling maul – Exeter infringed right, left and centre over the course of a 20-metre trundle – and then running in an interception score of their own, courtesy of Nick Scott. Gordon Ross then gave them an interval lead by slotting a penalty.
When Rich Baxter, the coach's brother, wrestled his way over for a third Exeter try early in the second half, there was no sign of the home side giving up the ghost. An exchange of penalties between Ross and Gareth Steenson left the game in the balance and when the moment came for a decisive move, Jackson was the man who seized it.
Scorers: London Welsh: Tries Penalty, Scott, Jackson; Cons Ross, Jewell; Pens Ross 2. Exeter: Tries Arscott, Jess, Baxter; Cons Mieres 3; Pen Steenson.
London Welsh T Arscott; P Mackenzie, S Parker, H Tonga'uiha, N Scott; G Ross (S Jewell, 73), T Keats; F Montanella (T Bristow, 60), N Briggs, P Ion (A Joly, 63), J Mills (capt, K Kulemin, 47-50), M Corker, D Browne (Kulemin, 56), M Denbee (A To'oala, 20), E Jackson.
Exeter L Arscott; I Whitten, S Naqelevuki, P Dollman, M Jess; I Mieres (G Steenson, 56), W Chudley (K Barrett, 60); B Sturgess (B Moon, 75), C Whitehead (S Alcott, 69), C Mitchell (C Rimmer, 44), T Hayes (capt), J Hanks (A Muldowney, 63), T Johnson (J Phillips, 56), J Scaysbrook, R Baxter.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).
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