Gordon Ross kicked London Welsh to a tense victory over a 14-man London Irish side in the battle of the Exiles, securing crucial points over their relegation rivals in their Aviva Premiership clash.
Hitting a perfect five-from-five player-coach Ross proved to be the difference in a clash that meant more about league position – with tenth playing 11th – than traditional rivalry to the Oxford-based team.
Chris Hala’ufia continued his chequered relationship with referees – his early dismissal giving momentum to the home side.
But despite a second-half fight back neither Ian Humphreys or Tom Homer were able to keep up with Scotsman Ross, leaving nine points on the tee as Welsh once again proved a formidable and resilient opponent at the Kassam Stadium, holding on for a win that means even more given Sale’s loss last night.
In the fifth minute the home pack flexed its muscles, driving a maul 30m – as it had to open the scoring against Northampton last week – and forcing a penalty, which player-coach Ross knocked over from 35 metres.
Welsh suffered a dual blow minutes later, losing powerful centre Hudson Tonga’uiha to what appeared to be a serious shoulder injury, and conceding a penalty from the following scrum.
While Humphreys’ 40 metre effort fell just under the crossbar, Tom Arscott knocked on attempting to field it. However French prop Franck Montanella, whose reputation is going from strength to strength, got his full-back out of trouble winning a penalty under his own posts and allowing Ross to clear.
In the key moment of the first-half Irish number eight Hala’ufia saw red for a trademark hit, and while appearing to tip his man past horizontal, the Kassam crowd were surprised to see the Samoan sent off for the challenge.
Ross extended his side’s lead with the long-range penalty and added a third minutes later after another driving maul.
Homer responded with a well-struck effort from the Welsh ten-metre line, however an error from kick-off gifted the home side possession deep inside Irish territory.
With Irish a man down up front and Montanella looking hungry, the Welsh pack forced a penalty and put Irish down for a scrum. However Adam Balding was unable to control the ball at the base, and Irish escaped to start their own attack, winning a penalty inside the Welsh 22 that Humphreys converted to narrow the gap to three points.
Ross added his fourth penalty with eight minutes left in the first half that meant the sides went in 12-6.
Irish’s disciplinary problems went from bad to worse, losing Matt Garvey to the sin bin in the 42nd minute for an offence at the breakdown. And although his side rallied, Humphreys however could not take advantage, missing two penalties in five minutes.
Welsh responded immediately – first Tyson Keats came agonisingly close to touching down a Nick Scott chip, before the home side turned again to their maul to win a penalty. It seemed luck was not with the Irish as Ross’ attempt bounced on the crossbar and over to take the lead to nine points.
With Garvey back on the field, 14-man Irish looked dangerous in an increasingly broken game and although unable to create any clear openings they began to dominate the penalty count – Homer taking advantage from 45 metres to bring his side within a score.
Irish boss Brian Smith turned to his bench and after Losi Taicakibau was dragged down by a desperate tackle the referee evened the numbers sending Sonny Parker to the sin bin.
Despite giving the London Welsh defence a torrid time during the closing stages Lyn Jones’ side stood strong, and fittingly Ross cleared the ball to end the game.