It’s the British and Irish Cup winners against the Principality Premiership champions on Saturday at Imber Court and Exiles scrum half Rob Lewis is predicting another titanic tussle between the sides, writes Sebastian James.
It was the Exiles who came out on top 12 months ago when they locked horns at Eugene Cross Park, with tries from Nick Reynolds (2), Nathan Trevett and Alan Awcock securing a hard fought 22-7 victory, and the Steelmen are sure to be out to reverse that scoreline.
“It’ll be very tough and competitive, last year’s game was. They may be semi-pro and only train twice a week, but they’ll be very physical and they won’t be lacking in desire,” said Lewis.
“We struggled last year in the opening half hour and I’m sure they’ll bring exactly the same intensity and mentality, but it’s down to us how we deal with that.”
The Steelmen defeated five-in-a-row chasing Pontypridd 38-12 in last season’s Grand Final to be crowned Principality Premiership champions for the first time, while the Exiles claimed silverware of their own by lifting the B&I Cup.
All of which should make for a mouth-watering match-up on Saturday.
“It’s always a very competitive game whenever we play a Welsh side - the breakdown in particular becomes a massive contest," added Lewis, who spent three seasons dual-registered with Ebbw Vale while coming through the academy at the Dragons.
Ready: London Welsh captain Ben Pienaar at the Championship launch in Twickenham last week
"Ebbw Vale will be strong over the ball and they know what they’re doing in that area, but it’s up to us to concentrate on our work at the breakdown, and on our roles and responsibilities as individuals.
“I loved it; there was a really good core group of boys, the likes of Kristian Owen, Simon Hunt, Andrew McLoughlin.
"Matthew Williams, chunky the hooker, is still there although he must be close to 40 now. They made life for my brother [James] and I really enjoyable. It was a fun time."
While the Steelmen head to London on the back of a comfortable friendly win at Bedlinog, Welsh go into Saturday’s game buoyed by an impressive 31-7 over Welsh Premiership newboys Merthyr at The Wern Sports Park.
Last year’s Swalec National Championship winners made life hard for the Exiles, and James Buckland’s side needed a late Kieran Murphy try to edge the first half 14-7.
Welsh took control after the break, however, pulling away through tries from Chris Elder (2) and Nathan Morris.
“We didn’t play a lot of rugby in the second half, but we played the right rugby," said Lewis.
"We didn’t play in our third or the middle third, and we exited cleanly and our kick-chase put pressure on them.
"We turned the ball over in their third and that’s where the second half was played. It was very effective.
“We had a game plan for Merthyr and we delivered it quite well, and we’ll adopt the same mentality on Saturday. We didn’t take Merthyr for granted and we certainly won’t be taking Ebbw Vale for granted.”
Ebbw Vale will be the Exiles’ final pre-season friendly before the serious business of the Greene King IPA Championship gets underway on September 4 with a trip to Rotherham Titans.
For Lewis and Co, it’s been a long time coming since the squad returned to pre-season training on June 2 – three and a half weeks early.
“Those few weeks extra have been really beneficial. It was down to us that we came in so early, because we had such a bad start to the beginning of last season,” explained Lewis.
“The earlier start has allowed us to get a head start on our conditioning and also a clear understanding of how we want to play.
"The coaching staff have been really good at getting that message across and the boys are all fully on board. They’ve all bought in to it and you can see that in training and against Merthyr.”