A shock 17-12 defeat for Cornish Pirates at an icy Carmarthen Park leaves their hopes of staging a home quarter-final in the British and Irish Cup hanging in the balance, after Carmarthen Quins avenged their October defeat at Mennaye Field.
The Pirates travelled to west Wales for their final fixture of the pool stages knowing they only had to avoid defeat after beating Dundee High six days beforehand. With Carmarthen already eliminated, the biggest threat appeared to be the severe winter weathe,r but the Welsh town escaped the worst of the snow and the pitch was in almost perfect condition for this tie.
Not so lucky was Bath loanee JJ Kilmartin, who returned home from a Scotland Under-20 training camp but then became snowbound and unable to join up with the Pirates' squad. Grant Pointer started at full-back in a late re-shuffle, with Max Maidment drafted on to the bench.
However, Pointer's long-awaited comeback from a hamstring injury was to prove short-lived as he limped off after just 27 minutes, having injured a medial ligament in his knee. Further injuries to Junior Fatialofa (dead leg) and Tom Bedford (ankle) along with a raft of bumps and bruises in a predictably physical encounter made this a day to forget for the Cornish side.
It all started so well, though, with a converted try after just eight minutes. Backs and forwards linked well in a flowing move which saw Tom Kessell, Fatialofa and Kieran Hallett set up back row Alex Cheeseman for a try under the posts. Hallett added the extras and the Pirates looked to be well set. It did not last.
Pre-match worries about the law interpretations of Scottish referee Johan van der Merwe in the key battlegrounds of the set piece and tackle area were soon confirmed as the Pirates conceded a host of early penalties.
Quins fly-half James Dixon was quick to profit and three place kicks in 15 minutes turned the game in favour of the Welsh Premiership side as they took a 9-7 lead.
The Pirates were unfazed, however, and Exeter Chiefs' dual-registered centre Sam Hill went close to scoring a second try after a barn-storming break only for the move to break down close to the Carmarthen line. But in a scruffy end to the first half the Quins held on to their lead, with Dixon missing a fourth shot at goal with the final kick of the half.
Two minutes after the restart, things took a turn for the worse for the Pirates as the Quins attacked incisively through Dixon and former Pirates scrum-half Rhodri Wells.
Centre Jason Harries gathered a well-placed chip ahead and eased past Hallett to score their only try of the game.
Another ex-Pirate, Darren Daniel, then picked up a yellow card to go with the one he collected in the earlier meeting in Cornwall after he landed several punches on Hallett, but the Pirates struggled to make the one-man advantage tell.
Lacking intensity and real cohesion in their play, they continued to concede careless penalties and Dixon and Jack Maynard both missed with further place kicks for the Quins.
When the second Pirates try did come, it was off the back of a well-worked move between Gavin Cattle and Rob Elloway, with the hooker scoring from close range after a period of prolonged pressure in the home 22.
There was still clear hope for the Pirates in the closing stages as they trailed by just two but a questionable yellow card against Cattle for allegedly stamping at a ruck and a 50-metre penalty from Maynard for the Quins effectively ended the resistance.
The Pirates must now rely on the outcomes of Llanelli against Moseley and the yet to be re-arranged Nottingham versus Llandovery tie before learning where they will play their quarter-final game.
Carmarthen Quins: Maynard; Daniel (sin-bin 50-60), Harries, Morgan, Banford; Dixon, Wells (C Lloyd 57); Evans, Guest (Robinson 57), I Jones (capt); C Jones, Pugh; Bennett (Laxton 67), E Lloyd, Gallagher (Joseph 46). Replacements (not used): Beaujean, Davies, Rees.
Scorers: Try – Harries; Penalties – Dixon (3), Maynard.
Yellow card: Daniel.
Cornish Pirates: Pointer (Cattle 27, sin-bin 68-78); Bedford (Duncan 73), Hill, Fatialofa (Riley 54), Mercer; Hallett, Kessell; Storer, Elloway, Prescott (Joyce 64); Barry, Johnson; Marriott (capt), Cheesman, B Maidment (Tyas 57). Replacements (not used): Semmens, M.Maidment.
Scorers: Tries – Cheeseman, Elloway; Conversions – Hallett.
Yellow card: Cattle.
Referee: J Van der Merwe (SRU).