Ulster Ravens managed to hold on under considerable London Welsh pressure in the final 10 minutes to claim an important 21-17 British & Irish Cup victory, putting them joint top of Pool C with the Londoners.
BRITISH & IRISH CUP – POOL C: Friday, February 26
ULSTER RAVENS 21 LONDON WELSH 17, Ravenhill
Scorers: Ulster Ravens: Tries: Paul Marshall, Timoci Nagusa; Con: Niall O’Connor; Pens; Niall O’Connor 3
London Welsh: Try: Neil Starling; Pens: Ed Lewis-Pratt 2, Gordon Ross 2
Conditions were dreadful for this encounter; Ravenhill resembled a mud bath in places. London Welsh came to Belfast boasting a 100% record.
Having won their three previous games with bonus points, the London outfit led the Ravens at the top of Pool C by three points.
The home side made the perfect start with out-half Niall O’Connor slotted a first minute penalty, London Welsh were found guilty of holding onto the ball on the ground right in front of their posts.
From the restart, Mark McCrea counter-attacked down the left wing, making good ground before passing inside to Ravens captain Nigel Brady in close support.
Brady did well to ride a tackle before offloading to scrum half Paul Marshall who sprinted clear to dot down under the posts. O’Connor added the extras to give the Ravens a 10-0 lead with just three minutes played.
The Ulster side continued to press the visitors and another lively break saw McCrea cleverly chip ahead for winger Tommy Seymour to chase, but Seymour was adjudged to have knocked the ball on and a try went abegging.
O’Connor did extend the home lead to 13-0 with a second penalty, and then number 8 Robbie Diack sparked the back-line into life again, with McCrea instrumental in creating the space. However, as Ulster inched closer to the line, they were penalised for crossing.
London Welsh rarely threatened and as the game went into the second quarter, a break by young centre Michael Allen almost saw him get away. Then on the right wing, Seymour again made ground, cutting back inside before he offloaded to supporting flanker Willie Faloon who blasted into open space.
As Faloon was closed down just inside the visitors’ 22, he linked with Ireland prop Tom Court who went to ground five metres in front of the Welsh posts where out-half Gordon Ross illegally killed the ball and was yellow carded. O’Connor added the penalty to increase the home lead to 16-0.
The Exiles side started to settle and almost scored in the 26th minute when a poor pass from Marshall to O’Connor was not gathered, allowing Ben Stevenson put a clever chip in for blindside flanker and Welsh captain Jon Mills to chase.
Marshall did well to track the back row forward, but as Mills tried to touch the ball down, he knocked it on and the Ravens breathed a sigh of relief.
However, the visitors were not just there to make up the numbers, and in spite of still being a man down, they forced a penalty in the 31st minute when O’Connor was whistled up for hands in the ruck. Full-back Ed Lewis-Pratt slotted over the resulting kick to open his side’s account to trail 16-3.
Back to full strength, the Welsh continued to pressurise the Ravens defence, but unforced errors appeared to let the home side off the hook.
Disaster struck for the Ravens side when Marshall had a clearance kick charged down on his own line, the ball was turned over and then fired right where centre Neil Starling raced in at the corner for an unconverted try, leaving the visitors 16-8 behind.
The Ravens concluded the first half by conceding another soft penalty, which Lewis-Pratt converted to leave five points between the sides at half-time.
Whatever Ravens coach Neil Doak said to his players at the interval it had the desired effect. Two minutes into the second half, Timoci Nagusa set Ravenhill alight with one of the best solo tries seen at the Belfast ground for many a year.
The Fijian flyer started his attack with an amazing break from his own 10-metre line. He danced his way down the left wing and then straightened for the line. It looked as though he had been stopped just short, but as he was not held he gathered himself and dived for the line to score.
O’Connor missed the conversion, pushing the ball past the right hand upright to leave the Ravens with a 21-11 lead.
Nagusa paid a price for his try-scoring run and an injury saw him leave the pitch shortly afterwards. He was replaced by Darren Cave, with youngster Allen switching to the wing.
The Ravens spent the next 15 minutes defending their line, and had difficulty clearing the danger as the breeze stiffened.
Ross kicked a penalty on the home 22 after Ulster had strayed offside in the 60th minute, closing the gap to seven points.
From the restart, the London Welsh pack stepped it up a gear, putting in a powerful drive. As the Ravens struggled to hold the visitors out, they infringed when lock Ryan Caldwell came in from the side of a ruck and Ross obliged by kicking his second successful penalty.
The Ravens finally began to exert some pressure through their forwards. Cave almost got through as the back-line took their chance to run the ball, but a knock-on at the next phase saw possession switch to London Welsh with a scrum.
The Ravens started to look a bit nervous in the final minutes, and when they conceded a kickable penalty, with two minutes remaining on the clock, the Exiles side opted to kick for the corner to set up a catch and drive.
Once again it looked as though the Ravens had contrived to throw their chance for victory away, but this time the Ulstermen defended their line well as the game ticked into injury-time.
The Londoners had one final attack down the left wing but the Ravens flanker Faloon put a crunching tackle in on winger Paul Sampson, allowing the hosts to turn the ball over again.
From the counter attack, Allen almost made himself a hero with a great surge through the middle, but he was hauled down five metres short of the whitewash.
The game finished with skipper Brady having a charge for the line, only to be held up and the chance to deny Welsh a losing bonus was gone.
It now means that whatever happens in the last round of pool matches, if the Ravens and London Welsh finish level on points, the Ravens will go through as Pool C winners, having won tonight’s encounter.
But Doak’s charges still have to make sure they finish the job, taking maximum points against Aberavon who are due to visit Ravenhill on Friday, March 12.
ULSTER RAVENS: Mark McCrea; Tommy Seymour, Michael Allen, Ian Whitten, Timoci Nagusa; Niall O’Connor, Paul Marshall; Tom Court, Nigel Brady (capt), Bryan Young, Neil McComb, Ryan Caldwell, Thomas Anderson, Willie Faloon, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, Alan Whitten, Ed O’Donoghue, David Pollock, Cillian Willis, Ian Humphreys, Darren Cave.
LONDON WELSH: Ed Lewis-Pratt; Paul Sampson, Neil Starling, Simon Whatling, Errie Claassens; Gordon Ross, Ben Stevenson; Dorian Williams, Gavin O’Meara, Michael Holford, Matt Corker, Mike Powell, Nathan Bonner-Evans (capt), Michael Hills, Tom Brown.
Replacements: Chris Whitehead, Lorne Ward, Lee Beach, Jonathan Mills, Rob Lewis, Paul Mackey, Dominic Shabbo.
Referee: Leo Colgan (Ireland)