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