Austin Healey Column
Pack hold the key to Exiles' survival
Austin Healey
July 4, 2012
London Welsh's Hudson Tonga'uiha stretches the Cornish Pirates' defence, London Welsh v Cornish Pirates, RFU Championship final second leg, Kassam Stadium, Oxford, England, May 30, 2012
Hudson Tonga'uiha will be key to London Welsh's chances in the Premiership next term © Getty Images
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I wasn't surprised that London Welsh won their appeal but I was surprised that it was allowed to get to that situation in the first place. There's almost an argument that both teams should be allowed in the Premiership and expanding the league to 13 teams. It would mean two extra weekends of rugby and could they squeeze it in? Probably not. But that potentially seems to be the fairest outcome.

The decision is terrible for Newcastle because they must have gone through a mix of emotions. They've already started planning and spending money ahead of next year and as we all know the wages in the Premiership are substantially greater than in the Championship so that could leave the Falcons in a couple of sticky situations.

It will be interesting to see how London Welsh get on, I am slightly fearful for them because unlike other teams they weren't sure of their situation and so their recruitment will be based on that. But they're going to a good stadium; I've watched their team quite a lot last season and they play a good brand of rugby but I think they're more of a knockout side - playing well in one-offs - but they will have to do that in every game next term.

Their immediate focus will now be bolstering their squad and bringing in some proven quality. I saw they were linked with Gavin Henson and he has the potential to be a great player but has he ever really delivered? Probably not. It would bring a few more people through the gates and do well for their PR but that'd be it.

"To be honest, the RaboDirect PRO12 is a little bit boring and the supporters are largely starved of top-level rugby, apart from the Heineken Cup, and it could've been a great idea to move London Welsh over the bridge"

I saw Tom Voyce also linked and he'd be a very good addition. Every time we've seen him play over the last year he has been absolutely outstanding but just didn't get enough game time at Gloucester. I have no idea why this was the case and it could be part of the reason behind why they had such a terrible season but London Welsh's priority should be the pack. They've got Gordon Ross at fly-half who's adequate and good at kicking at the corners but that only happens when you're on the front-foot and for that, you need forwards.

If you compare them to Exeter, the Chiefs have a massive pack and that's what has held them in good stead. The physicality stakes will really be a shock for the Exiles and I think that's an area where Welsh need to bolster. If I had a blank cheque book I'd be targeting players similar to Francois Louw at Bath. There's no way they could recruit him but the Chiefs' success was built around players like James Scaysbrook. They need big back-rowers who will do a lot of work and will play a whole season. You don't want players who will be getting injured and you want guys who can go the distance.

Exeter's James Scaysbrook takes the ball into contact, Stade Francais v Exeter Chiefs, Amlin Challenge Cup, Paris, April 5, 2012
London Welsh should target players in Scaysbrook's mould according to Healey © Getty Images

I'd also acquire a big couple of centres, they've already recruited Sonny Parker and have Hudson Tonga'uiha but I'd still bolster that area. Yes they've got some good players but the front-five also needs some focus. Someone like James Percival would be ideal - a big lad who can do some damage.

Another big question now is what happens for next season in terms of promotion and relegation. I don't necessarily think they should bin the minimum standards criteria, but I think the stipulations need to be reduced. How can you expect a small club like London Welsh, with respect, to improve their facilities if they don't have the funding like you get in the Premiership? The only way you get that money is through promotion. If London Welsh get 8,000 or 9,000 in their first year in the Premiership then this will get them a stable platform.

One thing I want answered is whether they looked at a ground over in Cardiff or the equivalent? It would make perfect sense. I'm not sure about the parameters but Welsh supporters would definitely turn out. To be honest, the RaboDirect PRO12 is a little bit boring and the supporters are largely starved of top-level rugby, apart from the Heineken Cup, and it could've been a great idea to move London Welsh over the bridge.

The Falcons will now play their rugby in the Championship and I expect them to bounce straight back with a dominant season. They've got a strong coaching team, some good players and I think they'll be in the Premiership in 2013-14 at the expense of London Welsh.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby

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