If one thing is true for the fans of London Welsh, it’s that life is never dull. The last five years has seen the once peerless Exiles turn professional, enter administration, gain promotion to The Premiership and suffer the heartbreak of relegation. They have even swapped their spiritual home Old Deer Park, once graced by such Welsh greats as Mervyn Davies and JPR Williams, for a new, more imposing one: The Kassam Stadium in Oxford. ‘The Exiles’, it seems, are exiles once more.
Speak to club captain Matt Corker however, and he will paint you a slightly different picture. A stalwart of the club, and the longest serving player by some margin Corker speaks of a side that is learning and growing, hungry again for its seat at rugby’s high table. “We’ve put together a really strong environment” he stresses, “everybody here has got a point to prove, regardless of what end of their career they’re at. The work ethic is fantastic, and that lifts everyone.”
When rugby players speak of recruiting people with ‘points to prove’, it is easy to be cynical. Indeed one wonders how exactly these individual ‘points’ translate into getting the ball over the line. Yet watching London Welsh’s opening games, a gritty determination is oddly palpable. The Exiles seem to exude a sense of spirit and ‘fight’ perhaps more akin to the club’s amateur roots than the coldly analytical professional game.
As Corker speaks, it becomes clear that those amateur roots are not so far in the past. “When I first came to the club on loan from Wasps [in 2007] we were training Tuesday and Thursday nights and then playing on a Saturday. At Christmas that season we were at the bottom of the table. Since then the club has gone full time. We’ve made strides year on year with the culmination of that being playing in the premiership”
‘That season’ in The Premiership was one of controversy. Until being docked 5 points for fielding an ineligible player, Welsh had successfully avoided the bottom of the table claiming four wins before Christmas and regular losing bonus points. The deduction played a significant part in the club’s relegation and was enough to give major backer Byron Anthony second thoughts – in a subsequent interview he stated his intention to pull out, as he’d “had enough of the RFU and the PRL”.
Corker however, is more inclined to look at the positives. “The club has benefited hugely from last season. Being so close, and doing so well until the points deduction means we know we have what it takes to be a Premiership club. On top of this moving to the Kassam –playing in front of great crowds in a great stadium has been brilliant for the club”
It’s possible that Corker may be laboring this second point somewhat; asked in a recent interview if his number one wish would be to buy the Kassam Stadium, Chairman Bleddyn Phillips quipped he would much rather “have a ten thousand gate”. On the pitch however, is where it really matters, and it is difficult to fault London Welsh so far this season. The Exiles have brought in a host of new faces including rugby journeyman Tom May and ex-Lion Andy Titterrell, under a new coaching team in Justin Burnell and fly half Gordon Ross. They have three wins from three games, with two of those coming against members of last seasons top four, Nottingham and Bedford. Good cause for confidence then, for the seasoned ‘Welsh fan. And yet, asked about the club’s ambitions for the coming season, Corker is almost brutally pragmatic. “The first and only step for now is getting into the top four. We can talk about semi finals and finals but you have to earn those first”. This perhaps, is a response befitting of a player of his experience. It’s a long season in the Championship, an uncompromising league well known for its twist and turns.
I push my luck, and ask Corker to pick his top four. He just laughs. “It’s far too early for that”.