Leeds Carnegie will take a slender, potentially crucial, advantage into the second leg of this play-off semi-final after a thrilling advert for rugby union’s second tier.
Two teams full of attacking intent produced a relentless game played out in front of a healthy crowd at Headingley, among them the England head coach Stuart Lancaster, who earlier that day had run the Leeds half marathon in under two hours.
The race to the Premiership has certainly been of the lung-busting variety, with a 23-game regular season followed by potentially four more games in the play-offs running into the first week in June.
Leeds showed they had the legs to last the duration with this win over a side relegated from the Premiership last season, whom they had yet to beat this term.
James Lowes’ men even had cause to feel aggrieved that they don’t head to the Kassam Stadium in Oxford next Sunday with a more handsome advantage.
But as Lowes observed afterwards, such were the fine margins between the four semi-finalists in the regular season, that no team was ever going to sprint to promotion on the final lap.
Leeds were at their attacking best from the off, making the most of unforced errors by their former fly-half Gordon Ross to establish a 6-0 lead.
Glyn Hughes had a marvellous day with the boot, kicking seven penalties and two conversions to the tries by dynamic midfield duo of Rob Vickerman and Fred Burdon.
Hughes even ceded the chance to kick a perfect 10 to Alex Lozowski at the death, because he was struggling with cramp.
His first two kicks were split by Alex Davies, after which Leeds took charge. From an attacking line-out Vickerman cut a swathe through the Welsh rearguard to score under the posts.
After Hughes converted, Vickerman was again involved, feeding off Jonah Holmes’ incisive break from inside his own 22 to set Leeds free.
Burdon was also involved in a move that, although it broke down when Stevie McColl was shackled 22 yards out, resulted in another penalty that edged Leeds further ahead.
Welsh’s powerful pack threatened to turn the tide when they forced a penalty try midway through the first half, a decision that came with the added punishment of lock Mike Myerscough being sent to the sin bin for a deliberate knock down. Hughes and Ross – taking over kicking duties for the injured Davies – traded penalties before another slick move involving Vickerman and Burdon only failed to end with a try because of a superb, saving tackle from Welsh wing Seb Stegmann.
Once Myerscough returned to the field, Leeds regained their superiority and after another Holmes break, the rampaging tandem of Vickerman and Burdon combined again for the latter to scamper under the posts.
Welsh would not go away and after sustained pressure on the left flank, the ball was switched right and Andy Awcock went under the posts.
Hughes’ fifth successful kick gave Leeds a 29-20 lead at the break but the threat Welsh carried was underlined upon the resumption when Awcock – only on as a replacement for Davies – dived over in the corner after a terrific offload in the tackle by Stegmann.
Leeds’ scrum created two more penalties for Hughes, while Ross responded with one. Alex Lozowski brought fresh legs to Leeds’ free-running as a replacement but Leeds could no longer penetrate as readily as they had in the first half. Concerted Welsh pressure resulted in three penalty attempts, the first and third of which Ross scored, the second, he sliced.
A late thrust from Leeds, on the back of good work from the pack, gave Lozowski a chance to kick what could prove a decisive three points.
Leeds Carnegie: McColl (Lozowski 61), Holmes, Vickerman, Burdon, D Doherty, Hughes, Hampson (J Doherty 52); Beech (Imiolek 72), Nilsen (Graham 72), Tussac (Hooper 61), Beck, Myerscough (Green 61), Sisi (Walker 72), Rowan, Burrows.
London Welsh: Davies (Awcock 25), Stegmann, May, Tincknell, Scott, Ross, Cook; Trevett (Briscoe 52), Vella (Morris 59), Tideswell (Edwards 52), Spencer (Quill 63), Corker, D Browne (P Browne 39), Kirwan, Stedman. Unused replacements: Quill.
Referee: A Small (RFU).