London Welsh vs Exeter match report: Exiles look certainties for another spell in wilderness

London Welsh 0 Exeter 52

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The Independent Online

The last time London Welsh were a top-flight concern, two seasons ago, they would probably have avoided the relegation fate everyone had predicted for them but for an inexplicable meltdown on the administrative front. False eligibility papers were filed on behalf of an unsuspecting scrum-half from New Zealand and five league points were docked.

There will probably be no need for a scandal this time. These Exiles have all the documentation they need for a one-way trip back out of the Premiership.

If that pronouncement seems a little previous, with 21 matches still to play, any fair-minded judge watching their first-up performance against an Exeter side some way short of full strength would have reached a similar conclusion. No team returning to the elite domestic tournament with 26 new players on the roster could have negotiated  80 testing minutes without the odd system error in defence or spurned attacking opportunity, but the poverty of this display bordered on  the tragic.

Perhaps most depressingly, there was no sign of the warrior spirit generated in 2012, when a ragtag collection of players hastily cobbled together by the coach Lyn Jones fought like rabid dogs in front of small but noisy crowds at the Kassam Stadium. Leaving aside a forthright contribution from the flanker Richard Thorpe, there was no fight about the Exiles here – and no noise either, apart from an occasional outburst of three-part harmony from a Welsh male voice choir presumably charged with turning a football venue on the outskirts of Oxford into something resembling Pontypool Park. As there were more people in the choir than the one occupied stand, this came as little surprise.

 

Jones’ successor as top man, Justin Burnell, is not the sort to panic, which is probably as well: if the strategist in chief fell victim to the collywobbles at this early juncture, there really would be no hope. But although he did not for a second seek to condemn his charges for their attitude in a display that was too conciliatory for words – he restricted himself to a far easier critique of their error count, both with and without the ball – the former Cardiff Blues coach must be profoundly concerned at the way Exeter were permitted to play an offloading game in what amounted to exhibition mode.

Quite what the two big names in the London Welsh line-up – the former England outside-half Olly Barkley and the World Cup-winning All Black scrum-half Piri Weepu – made of these events was anyone’s guess, but then, they didn’t exactly play the house down either. Barkley showed some neat early touches on the tactical kicking front but shanked two shots at goal in the second quarter and disappeared from view. Weepu? He looked short of fitness, for one thing, and bereft of ideas, for another.

Exeter’s newcomers had much more fun: the No 8 Thomas Waldrom marked his move from Leicester with some characteristically button-bright handling at close quarters and a brace of tries to boot; the South African full-back Chrysander Botha signed on with a solo-stepping try from distance deep in the final quarter. There were also eye-catching scores from the debutant back Jack Arnott – a classic leap-catch-sprint routine – and the more hard-bitten centre Sam Hill, whose ball-stripping assault on Tim Molenaar, his opposite number, and ensuing bull-run to the line was wasted on such a miserably small audience.

There was also an interesting performance from Hill’s midfield partner, Henry Slade, who possesses gifts granted to precious few modern players. His move from stand-off to outside centre remains very much a work in progress – certainly, he will find Manu Tuilagi of Leicester a slightly more difficult proposition at Sandy Park next weekend, assuming he stays in the role – but there was an elegance about his work yesterday, a sense that he had both the space and time to bring ideas to fruition, that marked him out as a serious talent. Very much on the wider England radar, his development will be one of the fascinations of the season.

Yet the major story, sadly, was London Welsh and their shortcomings. Burnell was brutally honest, much as Jones would have been, in his flat refusal to use the mass recruitment as an excuse for the powder-puff nature of the performance. “We can all hide behind the fact that a lot of people have come into the club,” he said, “but this was about individual errors made by professional players – people you expect to make their tackles rather than miss them. And it’s not a case of us going away and ‘regrouping’ or any of the other clichés. The truth is that we have to stick out our chests, put the smiles back on our faces and learn from what has happened. Who knows? People might look at this game and start taking us for granted.”

There may be something in that, although neither Newcastle nor London Irish, just about the only teams who might conceivably be dragged into a scrap at the bottom of the table, are likely to make such a grave error of judgement. Before yesterday, Burnell might have been thinking in terms of taking something from the trip to Sale in a little under a fortnight’s time, but that now seems unrealistic.

His target must be the home game against Newcastle on 11 October. If the Exiles draw a blank there – and with a forward pack as underpowered as this one, there is every chance of them doing so – their goose will be cooked well before Christmas.

Scorers: Exeter – Tries: Waldrom 2, Ewers, Hill, Whitten, Arnott, Botha. Conversions: Steenson 6, Slade. Penalty: Slade.

London Welsh: S Jewell (R Crane 59);  S Stegmann, T May (capt), T Molenaar, N Scott; O Barkley (T Roberts 63), P Weepu (R Lewis 63); R Reeves (P Henn 52), K Britton (N Vella ht), T Vea (J Gilding 58), D Schofield (M Corker 46), J Down, P Browne, R Thorpe (Reeves 75),  L McCaffrey (O Stedman 59).

Exeter: C Botha; I Whitten, H Slade, S Hill  (J Arnott 58), M Jess; G Steenson (C Sweeney 62), H Thomas (W Chudley 33-ht and 46);  C Rimmer (B Moon 51), J Yeandle (capt, E Taione 61), T Francis (M Low 51), M Lees (D Armand 60), R Caldwell, D Ewers, B White (K Horstmann 59), T Waldrom (White 69).

Referee: D Richards (Berkshire).

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