THE dress rehearsal went according to plan and now confident Yorkshire Carnegie are ready for the main performance.
A quirk of the Championship fixture list saw the four semi-finalists face off in the final round of league matches.
With second spot already assured, Yorkshire coach Bryan Redpath could afford to make 12 changes to his starting line-up for the Headingley meeting with Ealing Trailfinders, who were almost certain to finish third.
A big win for the visitors would have given them a lift going into the two-legged play-off, but they were clearly second-best to Yorkshire’s much-changed side and Redpath’s men will fancy their chances of going at least one better than last year and reaching the promotion decider.
Ealing will also field a stronger side in the first leg, at their home ground on Friday, April 28 and the return a week later, but if Yorkshire can defend as well as in the league game and take their chances it will need a good performance to beat them.
The winners of that semi-final will face either league leaders London Irish or fourth-placed Doncaster with a place in the Premiership up for grabs.
There is a massive opportunity this season to create something for ourselves as a group of players, staff and everyone involved.Yorkshire Carnegie head coach, Bryan Redpath
Redpath was “chuffed to bits” to see his men end their league campaign on a high, but admitted everything now hinges on how they handle the next few weeks.
“We need to focus now,” he said. “There is a massive opportunity this season to create something for ourselves as a group of players, staff and everyone involved.
“It (Saturday’s game) confirmed Ealing are a strong setpiece team. Some of their contact-area work is strong and they’ve got some very good players.
“We can analyse it, but it’s what the players do on the day now. They (Ealing) have earned the right to be in third position, but what matters now is how our players react and our mentality.”
Ealing play home games on an artificial pitch which will give them an advantage but Redpath believes his side are capable of matching anyone over two legs.
“We have shown we can compete with anybody. We have an artificial pitch we train on at Kirkstall so that’s not a big thing.
“The conditions will be a factor, but I believe if this group of players stick together and work hard in the little parts of the games we have a chance to get through, but we have to win both games to do that.”
With neither team wanting to give anything away, Saturday’s game was a scrappy affair, but five tries to two – one of those a penalty score – was an impressive statistic for Carnegie.
Several of the players who were called up will have given Redpath something to think about, in particular blindside-flanker Richard Beck. He scored the opening try after a rolling maul near Ealing’s line – Warren Seals landing the first of his four conversions – and James Thraves, who had a strong game, went over from Dan Sanderson’s pass.
That came after Ealing had been reduced to 14 men with Chris York sin-binned. Aaron Penberthy had got them off the mark with a penalty, seconds after hitting a post from a similar attempt and he converted when the visitors were awarded a penalty try following a spell of pressure on the line just before the interval.
Matt Beesley drove over for the hosts’ third touchdown early in the second half and – after another penalty from Penberthy – they scored the try of the game, created by Steve McColl and Elder and finished by Forsyth.
Mike Myerscough set up a try for Mike Mayhew to make it 31-13 at the start of the final quarter.
Willie Ryan pulled a try back, improved by Penberthy, 10 minutes from time and Ealing applied some fierce pressure after that, but strong defence kept them out.
Only 1,362 spectators turned up to Saturday’s dead-rubber and Redpath believes getting the Yorkshire public behind his team is crucial to their chances over the next few weeks.
“The big thing for me is trying to get as many people to come and watch the game on May 5 as possible,” he said. “If we can get 6-9,000 people here it will be exceptional for us. That is an extra lift we’ve never had and if we can get that it will be great.”
Yorkshire Carnegie: McColl, Elder, Forsyth, Lucock, Goss, Seals, Green, Beesley, Mayhew, Thraves, Schofield, Sanderson, Beck, Saull, Staples. Replacements: Poole, Boyce, Cusack, Whetton, Myerscough, Allan, Bullough.
Ealing Trailfinders: Harries, Crane, Jones, Ellis, Chesters, Penberthy, Carter, Gibbons, Walker, Rodman, Maddison, Towson, York, Smid, Murphy. Replacements: Lawrence, Davis, Thiede, Ryan, Peters, Davies, Clegg.
Referee: M O’Grady (RFU).