There was a full-force gale howling through Oxford on Sunday, not that it blew London Welsh any good. On the point of relegation, in body if not in spirit, from the opening weeks of the campaign, the Exiles were so fragile after 27 consecutive defeats across three competitions, they were barely in a position to withstand even the gentlest of breezes. Which was just about all that Bath managed to generate, despite being full of puff and wind.
For the record, Welsh are now definitely down, and there seems more chance of John Prescott beating Usain Bolt in a 100m dash than of this season’s whipping boys tasting victory at any point in a benighted campaign. Their last four opponents are Wasps, Leicester, Northampton and Saracens, so we can take it that they will finish the programme with a big fat zero in the “W” column.
Not that they will bow to this inevitability without a fight. “Some may think we’ll just wind down, but we’re too proud to simply switch off and wait for the summer holidays,” said Rowland Phillips, promoted to head coach following the sacking of Justin Burnell earlier this month. “Some aspects of our rugby in this game were positive, so we have to set about building on the foundations. There will always be speculation and rumour when a club gets towards the end of a difficult season, but my focus is on Wasps.”
These were brave words: not every career coach finds himself holding a straw as short as the one Phillips was handed ahead of yesterday’s thankless task. And he was certainly right about the bush telegraph going into overdrive. Among those rumoured to be heading for the exit are coaches Gordon Ross and Ollie Smith, together with half a dozen players, including locks Dean Schofield, James Down and Pete Brown, wing Nick Scott, scrum-half Paul Rowley and the heart-and-soul Australian flanker Lachlan McCaffrey.
Bath, who made hard work of what should have been a routine bonus-point victory despite early tries from hooker Rob Webber and No 8 Leroy Houston, have no such problems. Their next fixture – a European Champions Cup quarter-final with the three-time holders Leinster in Dublin – carries a very high tariff in terms of difficulty, but with such red-rose luminaries as George Ford, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Dave Attwood due back from England duty, and Springbok flanker Francois Louw available for selection, their issues are the polar opposite to those faced by the Exiles.
“There will have to be a completely different mindset next week,” acknowledged Mike Ford, the Bath boss, after an uncomfortable afternoon spent in the teeth of the elements. “Five points and no injuries – we took what we needed from today and we can now put this game to bed… or in the bin, whichever you prefer. One of the many differences concerning the Leinster match is that we won’t be starting as favourites. All the pressure will be on them, although with a home crowd of 50,000 cheering them on and a dozen internationals on the way back, it’s the kind of pressure I wouldn’t mind myself.”
Despite their productive start, Bath’s attacking game imploded in a riot of handling errors and tactical misjudgements and they led by only three points at the break, having conceded a try to the London Welsh centre Nic Reynolds following some heavy-duty approach work from McCaffrey and the outhouse-sized Tongan No 8 Opeti Fonua, who will cause no end of damage when he takes up residence in the Leicester pack next season.
But with the weather in their favour after the turnaround, the West Countrymen restored some authority with a try from Sam Burgess on 46 minutes – a close-range finish following Ollie Devoto’s mighty touch-finder, and a follow-up raid on the London Welsh line-out from Houston, whose achievements have been rather belitted by constant talk of transfer bids for two Test forwards in Duane Vermeulen of South Africa and Toby Faletau of Wales.
Slowly but surely, the bonus point arrived, courtesy of another Houston intervention off the back of a surging scrum. Not that his direct rival, the 23st Fonua, would be silenced. Following the visitors’ fifth and final try, which fell to the Samoan flanker Alafota Fa’osiliva, there was a howl of defiance from the Exiles’ own South Seas islander, who ploughed over the Bath line with seven minutes left on the clock. Only a curmudgeon would have begrudged him his moment.
London Welsh: Tries Reynolds, Fonua; Conversions Roberts, Robinson. Bath: Tries Houston 2, Webber, Burgess, Fa’osiliva; Conversions Homer 2.
London Welsh S Jewell; S Stegmann, N Reynolds, T May (capt), A Awcock (J Lewis 69); T Roberts (W Robinson 29), R Lewis; N Trevett (E Aholelei 69), K Britton (N Morris 53), B Cooper (J Gilding 62), D Schofield, J Down (B West 58), L McCaffrey (R Thorpe 33-44), C Kirwan (Thorpe 45), O Fonua (Aholelei 46-44).
Bath T Homer; S Rokoduguni (M Banahan 47), S Burgess, K Eastmond (H Agulla 63), O Woodburn; O Devoto, M Young (C Cook 65); N Auterac (B Obano 67), R Webber (R Webber 61), K Palma-Newport (M Lahiff 64), S Hooper (capt), D Day (M Garvey 45), C Fearns, A Fa’osiliva, L Houston (D Sisi 64).
Referee T Foley (Somerset).Reuse content