Aviva Premiership
An unequal struggle
John Taylor
October 10, 2014
Chasing shadows ... Mark Atkinson of Gloucester bursts through the London Welsh defence to score © Getty Images

We are just six weeks into the Aviva Premiership season but Saturday is D-Day for London Welsh with 'D' potentially standing for 'Disaster'.

Another bad loss against Newcastle Falcons at the Kassam Stadium to go with the five drubbings so far means there is no chance of survival and it is going to be a very bleak winter, whatever the weather. The mantra for any newly promoted team is '11th place will do' and nobody expects much change from teams in the top half of the table but Newcastle are 11th and the hope was that they were struggling just as much as the Welsh.

That perception changed dramatically with their victory over Exeter last Sunday. It ended a losing streak of 20 defeats in the Premiership and it was achieved against a side that had beaten the Exiles 52-0 on the first weekend of the season.

It was not supposed to be like this. When Welsh were promoted two seasons ago the legal battle to be allowed to play in the top flight took until the beginning of July and that left less than two months to create a team capable of competing in the Premiership.

We were helped by Bourgoin going into administration which meant we were able to pick-up a couple of experienced, grizzly French props looking for a job pretty cheaply but, relying on quite a few of the players who had won promotion, the team fought tenaciously and might have pulled-off the miracle of survival had we not been docked five points for falling foul of the registration regulations - unbeknown to the club, a rogue team manager (highly recommended but necessarily hired in haste) forged documents to shortcut the legitimate process.

This time there were a full three months to prepare - still hopelessly inadequate - and 25 new players were brought in including a couple of marquee signings, Piri Weepu and Ollie Barkley, but they have been totally outclassed in every game so far.

Coach Justin Burnell still insists he has the quality to survive and promises Welsh will come good eventually but they have shipped an average of 50 points a match and even the most loyal supporters' faith is being sorely tested.

It may sound harsh but they were reduced to picking among the leftovers.

With so many new players and no Welsh core questions have been asked about commitment to the cause but Burnell insists morale is high and it is more a question of bedding down into a team under very difficult circumstances.

This begs the question of whether any club can prepare properly for promotion as the gap between the Premiership and the Championship widens inexorably with every year. I believe it is now impossible unless there is sufficient funding in place to gamble midway through the season so that the aspiring club can start to make signings in hope because there can be no certainty.

Bristol, with a huge injection of cash from billionaire, Steve Lansdown, committed to that last year only to be pipped in the play-offs by London Welsh having finished top of the table at the end of the regular season. They are topping the table again this year and that is hardly surprising when you look at the squad. There is a wealth of Premiership and international experience, headed ironically by a group of Welshmen - Dwayne Peel, Nicky Robinson, Ian Evans and Ryan Jones (what the Exiles would give for that quartet). The wage bill must be double that of any other club in the division except perhaps Worcester, the club relegated from the Premiership last season.

London Welsh have nowhere near the same resources and could not afford to gamble. Professional rugby players hate to be out of contract and most, if not all, the players they would have targeted had been tied into new deals long before the end of May. It may sound harsh but they were reduced to picking among the leftovers.

Even then a serious injection of money would have helped but the funding system for Premiership clubs is iniquitous - discriminatory and totally geared to looking after the interests of the founder members. Senior clubs such as Leicester and Northampton can claim about three times as much from the central pot as a newly promoted team. This includes payments for players involved in England's elite squads but they also benefit enormously from a shareholding system that effectively denies an equal footing for the newcomers.

This means London Welsh get something in the region of £2 million less than clubs who have always been in the Premiership at a time when they need more as they try to market themselves to a new supporter base and put a new team together with no academy to draw on.

Only Exeter have managed to buck the system. They deserve all the plaudits they have been given and having fought, successfully, for a place at the top table I know their owner, Tony Rowe, believes others should have to prove themselves in the same way.

That is all very well if you want to create an elite set of what will effectively become franchises with no relegation or promotion - good for business but not necessarily for the game. If you truly believe in a pyramid structure with competition right to the top there has to be a system where, at very least, the dice are not financially loaded against the newly promoted clubs. It is tough enough already as London Welsh know only too well.

Happier times - London Welsh celebrate a comeback win over Leeds in last season's play-offs © Getty Images
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John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist

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