Honeymoon is over for new boys London Welsh
Graham Jenkins at the Kassam Stadium
September 2, 2012
London Welsh came up short on the pitch against Leicester but not off it © Getty Images
The drumming was hypnotic, the colour dazzling and joy was there to be seen on a sea of faces gathered for a special day at the Kassam Stadium. However, the subject of their adulation was not London Welsh's long-awaited Aviva Premiership debut against Leicester Tigers, but the Indian wedding that rivalled it as the main attraction at the Exiles' new home in Oxford.
The final game in an outstanding opening round of this season's Premiership battle may not have been able to match the epic Bollywood-style celebrations on-show elsewhere within the stadium, including an elaborate carriage pulled by white horses and enough cameras to rival Sky Sports' production of the game, but that is not to say that London Welsh failed to produce a performance worthy of the Premiership stage. As expected, they come up short on the field but the commitment they showed in battle, which was matched by the support off the field, suggests they intend to scrap for every inch this season, with the same tenacity that secured them a place in the top flight, in the hope of defying the odds and beating the drop.
A hugely promising crowd of 6,850 flocked to the ground, with most aware of the long battle fought by the hosts just to be granted a place among the elite - having seemingly earned it by winning the Championship title last season. Once again they travelled from the club's traditional home in south west London and from across the Severn Bridge as London Welsh fulfilled a dream, but more importantly from the local vicinity with rugby clubs happy to embrace Premiership on their doorstep.
Many predicted that it would soon turn into a nightmare at the hands of Premiership titans Leicester but that was not the case. The Tigers' five tries-to-two triumph hints at a one-sided contest but London Welsh held their own for much of the game, with their work at scrum time and in defence evidence that they have foundations in place.
But it is their impressive hunger and work-rate that is sure to serve them best in the coming weeks and months - with their next challenge against defending champions Harlequins just five days away. They will soon learn that there is little chance for a breather - the challenges keep coming in the Premiership with the Amlin Challenge Cup and the Anglo-Welsh Cup also set to test their resolve and their reserves.
"Be careful what you wish for," wrote London Welsh coach Lyn Jones in the matchday programme as he recalled his club's battle just to be granted a place at the top table, and as Leicester No.8 Thomas Waldrom touched down for the second time in the opening quarter it was probably a little too prophetic for his liking.
But his side were by no means overawed, having been bolstered with plenty of Premiership experience since winning the Championship play-off a few months ago - in fact there were only five survivors from that famous triumph. Old and new, they were all up for the fight and were rewarded with two tries of their own before the break, but ultimately they lacked the precision that their rivals only found here and there. "We were running into each other," Jones admitted post-game, and he may well be grateful for having met the Tigers before they have hit their stride further down the line.
The notable crowd, not helped by issues with the club's new ticketing system and traffic congestion in the lead up to the game, shows that London Welsh have made advances in their new base which is 57 miles from their old home at Old Deer Park in London. The club's accounts will have no doubt benefited from Leicester's loyal following but it is an encouraging sign, with time still to develop community links with local clubs and students yet to return to the local universities.
Sadly, London Welsh could not muster the same level of penetration boasted by their marketing team even against a rusty Leicester side. Tigers playmaker Toby Flood showed only glimpses of his best while his replacement - the 'bulked up' George Ford who does not appear to cast a significantly bigger shadow than last season - will also kick on from this performance.
The early season form of the likes of Waldrom and Geoff Parling and the classy Geordan Murphy will also be welcomed by Leicester boss Richard Cockerill, whose squad offers infinitely more depth than a London Welsh side that will be praying that the season does not take a toll in terms of injuries.
"Today is the end of the start," a defiant Jones said as he surveyed the damage in surprisingly good spirits. In contrast, many would see his side's failure to bloody the nose of the Tigers as the beginning of the end and his side's shortcomings are sure to cause a little more concern if a gulf on the scoreboard remains come the return fixture in February.
The result will form part of the steep learning curve that Jones, his side and the club have been on since being granted promotion. The honest coach retains the faith that his side are on the right track but the question remains as to how many will share that confidence and become regulars at the Kassam Stadium for what is sure to be a testing journey.
The honeymoon is now over and like all good marriages, London Welsh will need not only to work on their relationship with the Premiership with results the ultimate barometer but also that with the fans and Oxford or it could all end in a messy divorce.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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