LONDON WELSH have belatedly been confirmed as the new boys in England’s rugby master-class. But will they still be there this time next year, asks Richard Grainger.
An old proverb made famous in the 1902 short story The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, warns: ‘be careful what you wish for’.
For London Welsh, their wish for Premiership rugby became a reality on Friday afternoon when an independent appeal panel of James Dingemans QC, Ian Mill QC and Tim Ward QC overturned the RFU’s ruling, announced on May 23 shortly before the Exiles played the Cornish Pirates at the Mennaye Field.
The panel concurred that London Welsh, who defeated the Pirates by an aggregate score of 66-41 over the two legs, did not have primacy of tenure at the Kassam stadium — therefore upholding the RFU’s decision. However, they concluded that the hearing engaged two other general principles.
“The first is that issues of promotion and relegation should, as far as possible, be determined by performance on the pitch,” said the QCs in their judgment, quoted in The Guardian. “The second is that rules set out to govern the game should be respected and applied by everyone.”
The panel noted that several current Premiership clubs did not have primacy of tenure and that the rule that allowed three of the 12 sides in the top flight to play at grounds they did not own was narrow and unjustified. Newcastle’s claim that the primacy of tenure regulation itself made Welsh ineligible for promotion was rejected, as was the fact that the Exiles had missed the deadline to submit an application.
However, the panel concluded that the RFU’s May 23 ruling contravened both EU and UK competition law therefore their decision was overturned admitting the Exiles to English rugby’s top table and opening the trapdoor to the Championship for the Falcons.
Following the ruling, the RFU’s Chief Executive Officer Ian Richie said:
“I would like to thank all involved for their professionalism throughout the considerable time dedicated to this matter, which ensured the case in question was approached with the importance it warranted.
“The decision taken by the RFU Board was based entirely upon the results of the independent auditor’s report in accordance with the Minimum Standard Criteria (MSC), as set out by the Professional Game Board (PGB). We will now instigate a full review of the MSC, working within the PGB, with the aim of ensuring all stakeholders are agreed on the process going forward.
“The RFU considers this matter closed which will now enable all clubs to continue their planning for the 2012-13 season.”
While there can be no doubt that it took a considerable time to resolve the matter — from the RFU’s decision to deny Premiership rugby to the winners of the two-leg Championship Final on May 23, hours before the first leg kicked off, until last Friday — there must be some skepticism about the professionalism with which it was handled.
Newcastle Falcons said on their website: “We are extremely disappointed with the decision and the representations witnessed at the appeal hearing and we will leave our options open as to where we go from here”.
However, with next season’s fixture list rolling off the press on Wednesday, the Falcons may well be too late to launch further legal action. According to a statement issued by the club, winning the Championship and an immediate return to the Premiership under Dean Richards is now their objective: “We do not underestimate the competitiveness and challenges we face in the Championship but under the tutelage of Dean Richards we will have one, and only one goal – to win. Dean has been in this situation with Harlequins and he understands what it takes to navigate through the Championship, whilst putting together a team that will be successful with immediate effect on our return to the Aviva Premiership.”
London Welsh’s priority must be to strengthen their squad during the two months before they face their first premiership fixture.
When asked, in an interview with BBC Sport on Sunday, whether a certain unattached Mr Henson may feature in his plans, Head Coach Lyn Jones was evasive: “There’s a welcome for all good rugby players all the time as far as I’m concerned.”
But with influential scrum-half Rob Lewis moving to the Cardiff Blues, the Welsh are already minus one key player. Bath Academy graduate Matt Keyte has been brought in to replace Lewis, and 28 year-old back-rower Ed Williamson has joined from Leeds along with 33 year-old Daniel Browne, who has arrived at the Old Deer Park from Grenoble.
“We’re not going to be the finished item in September,” said Jones. “But as the season goes on we need to grow and make sure we establish ourselves as a Premiership club.”
But will the Exiles lose one established fan base in pursuit on another? There will certainly be an appetite for Premiership rugby in Oxford. The Kassam is a wonderful stadium and its location will appeal to followers of both London and Midland Premiership outfits as well as the indigenous neutrals.
However, unless the Exiles can substantially strengthen their squad and Jones performs a coaching feat not short of miraculous so that his outfit hits the ground running in September, Friday’s ruling may well prove to be something of a Monkey’s Claw.
A year from now, The Exiles and the Falcons could find their positions reversed, leaving the Welsh to ponder whether their wish for Premiership fulfillment should, at the eleventh hour, have been considered more carefully.