As much as London Welsh’s ascension to English rugby’s top flight involved a drawn out struggle with the game’s governing bodies, it seems that their eventual retreat to the second tier may well have followed a similar path. Captain Jonathan Mills is a proud man at a proud club, but even he concedes that Welsh’s five-point deduction for fielding Tyson Keats, an ineligible player, has been a bitter pill to swallow:
“It’s a tough one, we felt cheated in a way – it was obviously disappointing with us losing five points, but after the initial shock we just had to get on with and try to win rugby games. But even without that we felt we were good enough to stay in this league.”
As Mills speaks one gets the sense that his side is not wholly satisfied with the slightly acrimonious nature of their departure. “We felt we were good enough” is a recurrent sound-bite throughout the interview. Indeed Welsh have defied many pre-season doubters, securing four wins and seven losing bonus points, with three of those coming against the Premiership’s top four. Some resilient displays have proven that clubs with limited resources can mix it with the big guns of English rugby.
Driven by a steely determination and self-belief, the Exiles surprised many with their impressive start to the campaign, bagging 19 points in their opening ten games. At one point it looked as if mid-table safety and even Heineken Cup rugby was a distinct possibility, but form has dramatically deserted Mills’ team in the second half of the season, failing to register a single win and recording just 4 bonus points.
There are few people who have not welcomed London Welsh’s return to prominence in English rugby, so the fact that their season promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver has come as an even greater disappointment. But Mills insists that there was no shifting of expectations, no building up of hopes leading to a heavy fall.
“Before the season, we as players were confident in our ability and we felt we were able to stay up anyway no matter what those pre-season expectations of us were. I don’t think we changed our own expectations that we were good enough to stay up but maybe as we got a little bit of a gap we started to believe and we were a lot closer to achieving our goals.”
In fact Mills and his side came within a cat’s whisker of achieving their goals, and much closer than the table may now suggest. A 25-26 defeat at the Kassam to Sale in February is just one of many flashpoints throughout the season, but the hammer blow came over an extended weekend in March. On the Friday evening Sale held out for a nail-biting single point victory over Bath, before Welsh conceded a try in the final five minutes to Gloucester to lose by the same margin on the Saturday. Four points either way and Welsh would have been level with Sale rather than six points behind.
“I’ve got to say fair play to Sale. They really turned the corner since the New Year. The funny thing is they’ve had a couple of lucky results. But that’s rugby, so did we earlier in the season. I don’t think you can put it down to one area or turning point. Sale have gone out and earned the right to stay in the league and fair play to them. We’re frustrated in a sense, we feel we’re good enough but ultimately we have fallen short. We’ve set ourselves a goal of finishing within five points of the team above and then us as players will know that we were good enough to stay up and that will mean that the points deduction was the reason we went down.’ Like any chivalrous rugby captain, Mills is gracious in defeat.
Sadly, however, our interview came a couple of days before a heavy defeat to London Irish, making that aim now a mathematical impossibility. And as Mills mulls over the other possible explanations for his side’s dramatic slump in form, there is once again a sense of what might have been.
“At the beginning of the season we weren’t getting injuries and we were getting wins and I think that’s the reason why we were. If you look at the team sheets between now and then they’re very different. I highlight Hudson Tonga’uiha in the centre. He’s such a massive player for us and the last game he played was our last win against London Irish. Some of the other Premiership teams are able to rotate their squads in order to keep players fit and we haven’t been able to do that.”
It is strange to think that a club that has contributed 177 players to the Welsh national team and 43 to the British & Irish Lions over its 127-year history is struggling to compete on resources. But financial troubles have blighted their recent past and five-point deductions are not in fact unfamiliar territory for the club. In 2009 they received that same penalty for falling into administration but their recovery has been swift and their climb back into the Premiership last season was a remarkable story.
Wrapped in nostalgia and throwing back to the amateur era of Welsh’s all conquering sides, there was a sense that the club was back where it belonged. Many within the game will hope that relegation is just a momentary blip in the long trek back to the summit. Naturally, Mills feels a sense of mission to restore his prestigious club’s former status.
“I’ve always said that this club, with what it has done in the past, is a club that should be at the top end. I think that the experience that we have got from this season will only help us next year and drive us to get back here.”
But getting there is one thing, and staying quite another. So what would the club do differently next time around, assuming that is only a brief stay in what is an extremely competitive Championship division?
“It’s a tough one. You need a bit of luck, especially with the squad size we have got. Without the club saying they are going to spend an extra million than they have on ten quality players, there is not a lot we can do. You’ve got to live within your means. Maybe that is where Premiership Rugby and everyone else need to look at themselves. Whereas the top teams get £3.5 million in funding, teams like us just get £1.5 million in funding, which is kind of flawed in a way. You would think that the team coming up would need the most investment.”
Whilst funds have been tight, the club were able to loosen the purse strings over the summer to sign the one-man headline generator Gavin Henson. The former pin-up boy of Welsh rugby could have been considered a potentially dangerous signing, arriving as he did with as many bust-ups and Hello! magazine stories as his 33 international caps. But Henson has let his rugby do the talking this season with a string of impressive performances Mills is plainly delighted with his impact.
“Gavin’s come in and you can see he has wanted to work. Against Sale he nearly won us the game on his own. We can see the love he has for the game and for us as players it’s great to play with someone who has played for the British Lions and for Wales in so many games. It’s a joy to play with someone like that.”
So even with the disappointment of eventual relegation, it has been a season to remember for the Exiles but also a season to remember for the city of Oxford. The move to the Kassam came about as a way of allowing the club to meet the RFU’s entry requirements but speculation has now begun as to whether they will stay there.
Club chairman Bleddyn Phillips has had no concern to downplay the importance of any potential move or otherwise, stating that “a number of key decisions need to be made regarding the future of the club.” Clearly there are split loyalties, with certain members feeling that the club should return to their roots at Old Deer Park, whilst there is also a strong argument that stresses the need to build on crowds that have reached as high as 10,000 if the Exiles are to realise their ambitions.
“I think there is a real need for rugby in the area and I think it would be silly not to look at that. But the people who make that decision will make it based on what is best for the club long-term. We’ve loved our time playing in Oxford and we can really see how many people have bought into supporting London Welsh and you can only think that that will continue to grow in the future. So if we stay in Oxford it will be brilliant to build on the support that we have got from this year,” says Mills as we conclude our conversation.
It may prove to be a critical decision. To stay at a larger stadium may be to overextend the club’s limited means, but if the side are as good as their captain believes them to be they need to find a stadium that can fulfil their lofty Premiership ambitions. It seems only proper that they should do so within the dreaming spires of Oxford.
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