The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed a sneaky (and overly-floral) blog post last Friday for St. David’s Day. It was one of many things I did on March 1st just gone – I wore my rugby shirt into work, I handed out Welsh cakes to my colleagues and I draped my desk in the national flag. ‘That’s a bit much’, you may think but I make no apologies for it. In fact my display was quite reserved compared to some of my fellow London-based countrymen. One expat a floor below me was dressed as a daffodil all day – I kid you not! It seems the further you take a Welshmen away from his home, the more he has to prove he still has the ‘old land’ pumping through his veins. Saint David’s Day is obviously the perfect time to remind the world of your Celtic credentials but what about the rest of the year? What of those 364 other days when you don’t have a free pass to sing ‘Cwm Rhondda’ loudly in the faces of those passing by? Thankfully for the London-based Welshman (or Welshwoman) this has never been a problem as the city boasts plenty of Welsh expatriate institutions – little lands of our fathers that, over the years, have cured the acute homesickness of those Dai and Dilys Whittingtons who have come to London to seek their fortune: The London Welsh Centre on Gray’s Inn Road serves a decent pint of Brains and can boast ‘Mr. Wales’ himself Huw Edwards as its President; the Famous Three Kings pub near Earls Court becomes a sanctuary for the Welsh rugby fan on matchday; and, before now, I have been known to seek out the nearest close-harmony singing group to ease my itch for the ways of the West.
The most iconic of all of these institutions, however, is London Welsh RFC. It’s one of those clubs that, in name at least, is recognisable the world over. It’s easy to understand why when you consider that the club has contributed 177 players to the Wales national team and 43 players to the British and Irish Lions since its formation in 1885. That year, a team was formed from the London-based Welsh community for the London-based Welsh community and since then players such as Gerald Davies, Mervyn Davies, John Dawes, John Taylor, J.P.R. Williams, Colin Charvis and Tom Shanklin have all played for London Welsh. You could argue that this old club (based at Old Deer Park in Richmond) is the most famous rugby side of the pre-professional era. However, the game has not always been so golden for London Welsh since rugby went professional in 1995. The club, like many others, was slow to adapt. The Exiles finally turned professional in 2009 and then swiftly found themselves in administration when the money ran dry. ‘Welsh’ seemed destined to be just another of those famous clubs from the amateur age who never managed to regain their seat at the top table – the club that professionalism forgot.
Fast forward to June 2012 and a plump red cushion was firmly placed on that seat as Welsh gained promotion to the English Premiership confirming their status as one of the top teams in the country once again. This momentous turnaround in fortune was even more remarkable given that the club not only had to beat their rivals in the Championship but also the RFU to gain their deserved promotion. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re already aware of the legal battle that took place last summer, but here’s a brief summary just in case:
The Exiles finished fourth in England’s second tier last season but absolutely stormed the playoffs, culminating in a 66-41 aggregate victory over Cornish Pirates, to win the league. The topic of whether the play-offs are a fair and just way to determine league champions could form a blog post all of its own but, by the rules set out by the Rugby Football Union, London Welsh had won the league, the dream had become reality and promotion to the top-tier had surely been secured. The RFU disagreed and claimed that the club was not eligible for promotion as it did not meet the ‘minimum standards criteria’ for entry. It was true that many clubs in England’s Championship were not eligible for promotion as their grounds were too small, but the Exiles had sought to address this by obtaining permission to play their home games at Oxford’s Kassam Stadium with its 12,500 capacity. The elite of English Rugby remained unsatisfied claiming that the club was still ineligible because it did not have ‘primacy of tenure’ of the ground. It was this argument that raised the eyebrows of most rugby fans, given that Premiership sides such as London Irish, Sale, Saracens and London Wasps had all played their home matches at football grounds during the season just passed. Something about the RFU’s stance seemed dodgy if not deliberately unfair. Many suspected that the prospect of another London-based outfit joining the Premiership at the expense of Newcastle Falcons was unpalatable to the custodians of the English game who were keen to maintain Rugby Union’s presence in the North. London Welsh appealed the decision (claiming it contravened EU and UK competition laws), the appeal was upheld and the Exiles were duly promoted. The sentiment from the rugby community in London and beyond was that justice had been done and we looked forward to seeing London Welsh RFC battle it out against the top teams in England.
If only the story had ended there, as relegation is becoming an increasingly likely prospect for Welsh as the season progresses. Of course the sole aim of the club this season was to maintain its Premiership status. That was always going to be a difficult task given that their legal battle with the RFU left them with very little time to prepare and recruit players. Welsh’s belated promotion also gave the club an unbalanced fixture list with the majority of their home games being played in the first half of the season. Be under no illusions, the season was only going to get tougher for Lyn Jones’ men as they battled to avoid the dreaded drop and following Saturday’s 35-14 defeat away to Saracens, London Welsh are three points above bottom-placed club Sale Sharks (the gap had been thirteen points in December). With Newcastle Falcons dominating the Championship this year and English Rugby’s elite wishing for a Welsh relegation, the last thing the club needed to do was to give the RFU an opportunity to put a nail in the coffin…
The ethos of amateur rugby has always been very important for London Welsh RFC and it’s one that it maintains to this very day. Below the first XV, the club runs three amateur teams and can boast one of the most established women’s teams in the country. The club even has its own (and very successful) Male Voice Choir. However, it is a mistake by the professional team (a mistake fitting of any amateur side) that may yet seal the Exiles’ fate this season. It was revealed last week that the club have been charged by the RFU for fielding an ineligible player. In previous cases such as this, clubs have been fined and deducted points. London Welsh are fully aware of this and their decision to ‘come clean’ about the error is a textbook example of damage limitation. The worry for the many admirers of London Welsh is that the RFU will deduct enough points to consign the club to the bottom of the table. The hearing on Tuesday provides the governing body with a chance to help ensure that the make-up of the Premiership is to their liking from next season. It may sound like a grand conspiracy theory but given that the RFU fought so hard to keep Welsh out last year, I would not be surprised if this week’s hearing veers towards ‘worst-case-scenario’ for the Exiles.
Of course all is not lost for Welsh, even if they do receive a points deduction tomorrow. Their fate will still be in their own hands at least, with the last two games of the season (away to London Irish and home to Worcester Warriors) likely to be pivotal to survival. If they do manage to stay in the Premiership for another season it will be a mighty achievement, but they will have to work harder to avoid such amateur transgressions in the future. I, for one, will be hoping they do it – not because I’m particularly keen to go and watch them play at the Kassam (it’s half-way back to Wales after all) but because it’s been good to have London Welsh ‘back in the mix’ of top-flight rugby – a little reminder of expatriate success in the big city.
London Welsh’s first ever opponents, back in 1885 were London Scottish. This weekend the national side travel to Murrayfield looking to ensure they at least have something to play for when the English come to Cardiff on the final weekend of this year’s Six Nations. So what do you think the score will be? As ever, comments welcome below. Come on Wales!