London Welsh's record has been truly abysmal, so can they rescue some credibility in the second half of the season?

Not even the wiliest spin doctor could put a gloss on London Welsh’s season: 18 games, 18 defeats. An average score of 10-41 or, in the Aviva Premiership alone, 9-45. Last weekend against Harlequins was the first time they’ve got within two scores of any of their league opponents.

Some of the criticism has been scathing, The Daily Telegraph calling them “the most pathetic, forlorn side to play at this level since West Hartlepool at the ash end of the 90s”. Yet West Hartlepool won three games and drew another during their 1998-99 year in the top flight.

On the surface, only Rotherham, who lost all 22 games in 2003-04, look like challenging the contention that Welsh are the worst English Premiership team in history. But Jim Kilfoyle, Rotherham’s director of rugby that season, is having none of it.

“We weren’t like London Welsh because many of our matches were so tight, like losing 18-8 to Northampton and 27-20 to Wasps. And we did quite well in the European competition,” says Kilfoyle, now at Sandal and presently recovering from a tumour operation.

“We had a really good team ethic and the lads stayed together – we were always competitive. Our average defeat was about 30-10, and our last away game was the only time we got clobbered. We went to Leicester and trailed 63-0 at half-time! We finished with 13 men but won the second half, losing 75-13.

Justin Burnell

Through thick and thin: Coaches Justin Burnell, Rowland Phillips and Matthew Ferguson are sticking together

“In our last match we lost 26-20 at home to Newcastle. There were some woeful decisions and at the end Rob Andrew (Newcastle’s DoR) said, ‘Why are you so annoyed? You’re already down.’ But every game mattered to us, you stuck at it. And we were robbed that day because we manifestly deserved to win.”

Something to build on

It was only this week that Welsh admitted to having a relegation plan. But such has been the gulf in standards that the writing was on the wall even by October. The Exiles have leaked countless tries by defending too narrowly, and frequently they’ve tired alarmingly towards the end of matches – against Begles-Bordeaux they finished with two defensive lines! Coughing up the ball too easily has meant little respite – they’ve conceded 15 turnovers a game to go with set-piece stats hovering at an inadequate 80% or below.

Only a sadist would enjoy kicking someone when they’re down and rugby folk everywhere should relish Welsh’s improvements in recent weeks, notwithstanding the hiding at Saracens. New defence coach Rowland Phillips has given Welsh a better shape, and successive defeats by 24-9 and 24-13 offer some crumbs of comfort.

“For spells we played some good stuff against Harlequins,” says assistant coach Gordon Ross, the ex-Scotland fly-half who has been pressed into action a couple of times at the age of 36. “If we’d been more clinical we could have scored two or three more tries.

Gordon Ross

Stem the tide: Old-head Gordon Ross is trying to rally the squad

“We played with more freedom because there’s not much pressure on us at the moment. But we need to work on skill levels, be more clinical and show more definition in our play. We want to see improvements.”

Trapped in the stalls

Even with ten rounds remaining, Welsh are resigned to their fate, with one eye already on developing players for life back in the Championship. Some have suggested that their woes should prompt the play-off system to be scrapped, Welsh having upset the odds to eliminate league winners Bristol in last season’s final. That would help the promoted club but kill a lot of interest in the spring run-in.

Ross feels the die was cast even before Exeter rolled up at the Kassam Stadium to inflict that party-pooping 52-0 win in September. “The step up from the Championship is massive and [because of the 4 June finish to last season] we were one month behind schedule from the start,” he says. “That affected recruitment and gave us a short pre-season with no time for players to rest.

“It took us a long time to adjust to the intensity and physicality of the Premiership, and we weren’t as organised as we could have been. The players still lack confidence at times but we try to inject energy and enthusiasm into everything we do. Credit to the players because their attitude has been fantastic. They’re a good, honest bunch and if they haven’t performed then on Monday morning they put their hands up.”

Going down fighting

No one can fault the effort. Welsh had three of last week’s top five defenders, with prop Nathan Trevett (16) and lock James Down (18) surpassed by flanker and skipper Carl Kirwan’s table-topping 26 tackles.

Seb Stegmann

Shining light: Seb Stegmann has been a rare positive for Welsh

Yet the fact Quins still made 18 line breaks shows the scale of the problem. Too many holes in the dam, not enough chubby Hans Brinker fingers to stem the flow.

If Welsh continue to play with pride, they will earn everyone’s respect. And few people will oppose their efforts to bring about more equitable funding, with a £2.5m deficit compared to more established Premiership clubs preventing the club from signing the calibre of player needed to be truly competitive. Relegation is inevitable but they have targets to aim for – starting with winning a game.

Their next opportunity is Sunday’s trip to a Newcastle team hitting their straps. Welsh lost the home fixture 23-3 and Ross says: “They almost beat Saracens, they put 30 points on Northampton, they’ve improved out of sight. But we’ve made strides in the past few weeks ourselves and it will be a good challenge on their 4G pitch.”

The stats: The worst Premiership team ever

The stats: The worst Premiership team ever

* Sunday 11 January: Newcastle Falcons v London Welsh (2pm, Kingston Park). Live on BT Sport

  • Dan Lucas

    I think that was my line in the Telegraph. And in my defence, that’s a 13-year-old’s memory of West Hartlepool I’m going from! In all honesty they might as well reduce the Premiership to 10 teams. Yes Welsh are appalling but they were always going to be. Reduce the Prem to 10 teams and scrap the Championship play-offs and you (1) allow teams to have international weekends off so we don’t get Saints v Exeter (then second), Saints v Sarries, Exeter v Sarries and Saints v Bath (now second) during the international weekends; (2) Give the likes of Newcastle and Irish something to fight for as they’re drawn into a scrap for survival and (3) have a more competitive Championship with more big games likely to draw higher attendances and give other clubs a fighting chance as any four from Irish, Newcastle, Bristol, Worcester and Welsh will be down there.

  • ThomasHarwood

    The side that is promoted is doomed under these inequitable funding arrangements, unless it has a wealthy investor who has gambled on securing promotion before the play-offs have even begun. French promoted teams get additional money, not massively less.

  • Nick

    They are certainly up there or down there. Though the Premiership is far stronger now than it was 10 years back. Tbh releasing/swapping 23 players (from memory) from the starting XV and squad appeared to me a bit rash, especially given the short run in to the Premiership. The side that played Bristol at home in the playoff was very strong. Keeping that and then maybe feeding new players in through the year would surely have been a better option than starting the premiership with so many new signings and a short pre season. Ahh hindsight!