As a team rising again, hoping to have a better time of it than their last Aviva Premiership adventure in 2012/13, London Welsh could do with converting as many fans into believers as possible.
So with the bold signing of Piri Weepu, the club’s calculated risk should ensure that if anything else, they will be attracting neutral fans thanks to the presence of a cult hero.
All Blacks have come and gone in the Premiership with varying success. For every Nick Evans and Dan Braid there is the big player sitting on the seesaw of form like Luke McAllister or those who never really won anyone over other than the thick-and-thin supporters, like Stephen Donald or Jimmy Cowan.
What Weepu has that those others don’t, though, is that curious mix of passion that probably saw him flipping out after losing an egg and spoon race circa 1992, and mishief which sees him pull faces or joke around on the touchline. He looks a little husky for a scrum-half and his Wikipedia entry sports a picture of him beaming out from under a policeman’s hat, but he is also the one-man maelstrom spinning out of the centre of the haka and the same competitor that has enough alround skill to flick a cat-flap offload, kick from the touchline or take contact where few other half-backs would dare.
Oh yeah, and if you want an underdog element to the fun-loving World Cup winner, he has also had a stroke. The 30 year old had a ‘minor’ episode in March, but it only briefly stopped him from competing. Now he is headed for the Premiership.
In short, up or down, battling every game or defying expectation, Weepu will be at the centre of everything well-publicised at London Welsh.
It is hard to truly predict how the Exiles will go next season. A fair few of the squad who bounced back to the Premiership at the first time of asking have gone, being released while no fewer than 21 signings coming in, chief amongst them Olly Barkley, Dean Schofield and Tim Molenaar. The coaching ethos will no doubt be the same as last season with Justin Burnell and Ollie Smith assured of their style. But does the shipping in and out of personnel maintain moment or even retain some of the fire to prove people wrong? We shall see on the opening fixture for the side, against Exeter Chiefs on Sunday 7 September.
What we do know is that the club are trying to keep a hold of some of the expertise from their last bout in the Premiership – Sonny Parker stepping off the training paddock and becoming a team ‘manager’ says as much – and Barkley, Molenaar and particularly Schofield are players who know how to tough out a season at the top. Weepu has that sprinkling of magic and, more excitingly for the neutral, a swagger and a smile.
Many expect Welsh to go down swinging, but such talk has already reddened the cheeks of Burnell and his senior players. The incoming World Cup winner won’t be traveling halfway around the globe just to get spanked either.
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In many ways, the Premiership will be a better place for a red-breasted All Black slugging it out for respect, and grinning between bouts. If it looks like a crazy situation, all we will say is get ready to be evangelical.
Read all about London Welsh’s desires to make more of an impact in the Premiership this time around in the August edition of Rugby World – in shops now. You can find out where to buy your copy here. Download the digital edition here.