'The odds were always stacked against us'
May 29, 2013
London Welsh's stay in English rugby's top flight was painfully short © Getty Images
Barring a huge upset this evening London Welsh will be back in the Championship next season with Newcastle promoted to the Premiership. The Rugby Football Union will be mightily relieved - if things had panned out differently there might not have been a Premiership club north of Leicester.
It is good for the game that Sale and Newcastle give the top flight a northern presence but forgive us at London Welsh for feeling a touch hard done by. Our season in the Premiership has been a huge adventure; we would not have missed it for anything and with a little more luck we could well have survived.
We targeted six wins and that would almost certainly have been enough if it were not for the points' deduction that finally scuppered our chances - more on that later. We managed five victories and were only denied the sixth by an extraordinary decision right at the end of the home game against Saracens for which the referee was forced to apologise unreservedly because he was wrong in law.
When they collapsed the scrum for the third time (the video evidence was compelling) we thought we had the winning penalty try. He ruled it was nobody's fault and blew for time. That is just not allowed - the scrummaging sequence must finish and such was our dominance they would surely have gone down again.
I am sure some people are saying, 'sour grapes, these things even out in the end' but that is how close we were to survival. Those who have suggested we bit off more than we could chew and should never have gone for promotion should remember that.
The five point deduction was a tragedy and there can be no doubt it knocked the stuffing out of us in the vital run-in. We feel aggrieved because it was all so unnecessary. Tyson Keats was always qualified to play for London Welsh in the Premiership but because our team manager (who confessed to everything and made it clear he had acted alone, forging documents to conceal everything from the club management and the RFU) had some sort of breakdown, he was not registered when we believed he was. A totally unsympathetic RFU insisted on exacting a draconian penalty.
The irony was that the team manager was brought in because he had enormous experience of the role with Saracens and Harlequins, was well known and trusted by the RFU and, with next to no time to prepare for the new season, we were very aware of the importance of getting these things right. When it became obvious there was a problem I personally took-over the registration process and sorted it out within three weeks (that included the Christmas - New Year break when every office was closed).
We were the ones to bring everything to the notice of the RFU and even though we made it crystal clear immediately that we had always been seeking to register him as an overseas player they failed to ask why we thought that was necessary when they had been in possession of what purported to be the information page from a UK passport for Keats (an obvious, very poor forgery) since the beginning of October. We only discovered this in early February - four months later.
They claimed we should have had greater supervision but we were being shown doctored documents from the RFU to conceal the fraud. It was a very clear case of both parties being duped yet they refused to accept any blame despite having more relevant information than we had.
That is all now history but contrary to how some would like to portray it there has been a huge amount of excitement to offset the problems.
The odds were always stacked against us because of the delay between winning the Championship on May 30 and having our place in the Premiership confirmed on July 2. Only then could we actually start to sign the players we had identified to bolster the strength of the squad. During that month quite a few had been snapped-up and those left were hardly the pick of the crop!
We were also very short of funding. The iniquitous system where a newly promoted club gets a paltry share of central funding compared to the established clubs means the odds are stacked against them and it is no secret that our wage bill was only half that of most other clubs.
With our first Premiership game scheduled for September 2 there was little time to mount a proper marketing campaign and there was a massive amount of work to make the Kassam Stadium suitable for Premiership rugby.
When you win promotion from the Championship to the Premiership the size of the business increases three to four times and we also had to triple the backroom staff to cope with that. Even so, we were the smallest, leanest outfit by a mile.
We therefore needed some luck. The gamble on Gavin Henson was a calculated one but it never really had a chance. He broke his cheekbone in a pre-season friendly and injury then dogged him all season so, although we saw glimpses of the passing and kicking game that makes him so special, he never had a long enough run to become the dominating playmaker we needed.
We always knew lack of strength in depth was going to be a problem and so it proved. The injury that ruled out Hudson Tonga'uiha for most of the season (Henson and Tonga'uiha in tandem? We shall never know) seriously undermined our campaign.
But there were also plenty of highs. Our forwards, led by the incredible Jon Mills caused huge problems for some of the power packs of English rugby whilst 35-year-old Gordon Ross did a wonderful job starting most games at fly-half instead of Henson. The team spirit was inspirational even in the darkest times.
So, the one thing I will never accept is that it was an ill-judged adventure and we got our comeuppance. There has been much ill-informed talk about how much it has cost and speculation that we may have been better off staying in the Championship. Having been involved in both divisions I can assure you that is a huge oversimplification.
Funding in the Championship is so poor it would have cost us dearly just to tread water and with no chance to break-out and join the top flight that is just not sustainable. We have taken top class rugby to a new audience in Oxford and they have loved it - hopefully, all the good work will not be wasted.
Veteran playmaker Gordon Ross celebrates a rare victory for his side earier this season © Getty Images
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John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and also the ex-managing director of London Welsh