LEEDS Carnegie made it eight consecutive wins with a hard-fought success over Bristol to finish top of Pool Five and secure a home quarter-final in the British & Irish Cup.
If Jimmy Lowes’s buoyant side can extend that run to nine with victory at Championship leaders London Welsh on Sunday, they could be top of the league, too.
Clearly, it is a decent position to be in approaching Spring and there is nothing to suggest here the West Yorkshire side cannot march on and achieve glory in some form by the season’s end.
At the weekend, they displayed all the confidence and authority of a side in such a purple patch, building a 13-0 lead to check their highly-rated visitors and then, when the inevitable response materialised, showing enough wherewithal to hold them off.
Admittedly, Leeds were aided by Bristol’s bold tactic – employed all season by their ex-England coach Andy Robinson – of not even attempting to kick penalty goals.
The belief is that by continually running ball players will become adept at creating and finishing try-scoring chances and be more capable of handling pressure at the business end of the season.
It is refreshing to see a side play so freely and Bristol have crossed the line plenty of times this term with that brand of rugby, outscoring Leeds three tries to two here.
Already secure of their B&I Cup quarter-final spot, they refused numerous kickable penalties again but, given the fascinatingly competitive Championship race – where they sit level with Leeds in third – it will be interesting to see if their experienced director of rugby sticks by it for the long haul when the main aim of securing promotion looms into view.
Livewire scrum-half James Doherty was at the centre of Leeds’s best moments, doing his chances of earning a shirt against Welsh no harm whatsoever with a performance full of crisp handling and some useful turnover work, too.
“It was a classic game that ebbed and flowed,” said the ex-Wharfedale player, who has had to play second fiddle to Craig Hampson for much of this term.
“They came back at us and we were on the offensive at times, but overall it was the composure we showed that impressed me most.
“We put ourselves under pressure a couple of times, but how we reacted to that was excellent.
“If we made a mistake at a scrum or whatever we then reacted with a great defensive set. That relentlessness to not let them in cheaply and make them work for every point was important.”
Second-row Matt Smith’s 17th-minute try came after Glyn Hughes’s impressive break and countless phases near the Bristol line and, with Hughes adding the conversion, they led 13-0 when he kicked a second penalty just after the half-hour.
Lowes’s side dealt with most of what the visitors threw at them, but they were finally broken with the last play of the first half when a long looping pass from ex-Wales fly-half Nicky Robinson exposed their right flank and full-back Auguy Slowick finished off. Robinson failed with the conversion and Leeds came close to scoring early in the second period when Doherty latched onto Jacob Rowan’s break only to be somehow held up by Slowick when a try seemed certain.
However, from the resulting re-set scrum, Rowan and Doherty worked a clever blindside switch to usher Josh Griffin – switched from centre to wing – over for his seventh try of the season. Slack midfield defence, however, allowed Bryan Rennie to glide over between the posts in the 52nd minute, Robinson’s conversion making it 18-12.
When Leeds lock Nathan Hannay was yellow-carded soon after for killing the ball, Bristol sensed it was time to strike. Blindside Nick Foster thought he had surged clear, but he was brought back for obstruction and it was the hosts who struck via Hughes’s boot.
The visitors did respond with a stunning score initiated by a clever midfield chip from Robinson inside his own half, Slowick gathering the bouncing ball and then a flowing passing move seeing Ryan Edwards eventually escape Leeds’s scrambling defence.
Robinson improved to narrow the deficit to just two points, but Bristol were then reduced to 14 men when Mark Sorenson dragged back a Leeds player off the ball as he was trying to support James Currie under the posts.
Hughes slotted the kick and, though his replacement, Oli Goss, missed a simple effort in the closing stages, Leeds’s defence was in no mood to throw this one away.
The draw is made a week today with Rotherham Titans, Plymouth Albion, Munster and Pontypridd potential visitors to Headingley on the weekend of April 5, 6 and 7.
Leeds Carnegie: Holmes; Vickerman, Clarke, Burdon (Barker 74), Griffin; Hughes (Goss 74), Doherty; Harris (Lockwood 49), Nilsen (Currie 58), Beech (Walker 58), Hannay, Smith, Myerscough (Williams 68), Beck (Walker 40), Rowan.
Bristol: Slowick; Watkins, Rennie (Amesbury 58), Mosses, Edwards; Robinson, Tipuna (Braley 40); Traynor, Johnson (Lawrence 58), Hall, Skirving Townson (Sorenson 61), Koster, Merriman (Eadie 71), Mama.
Referee: K Barry (IRFU).