Ireland hold first talks over London Irish phoenix club

London Irish were forced to file for administration on Tuesday - Getty Images/Alex Davidson
London Irish were forced to file for administration on Tuesday - Getty Images/Alex Davidson

Exploratory discussions are understood to have taken place between senior officials at the Rugby Football Union and their Irish counterparts in relation to London Irish, Telegraph Sport can reveal.

The informal talks are thought to have been prompted by the IRFU’s publicly stated desire to create more playing opportunities for the bottleneck of talent within the Irish academy.

It is understood that the discussions have been limited to preliminary soundings, given the strong bond and relationship between the two unions and the complexities involved if the IRFU was to consider some involvement in what would be a phoenix club after London Irish on Tuesday was forced to file for administration.

Both unions confirmed that talks had taken place, although for now it remains at a hypothetical stage, with the IRFU, in a statement to Telegraph Sport, diplomatically saying it had “no plans currently to invest in rugby outside of Ireland.”

“The RFU has informally kept the IRFU updated on the situation at London Irish,” said an IRFU spokesperson. “Naturally the IRFU is saddened by what has happened at the club and hope that the club’s difficulties can be resolved sometime in the future.”

The RFU declined to comment but is thought to be keen to explore every opportunity to save the club from going into extinction, in a traumatic season that has already seen Wasps and Worcester Warriors go to the wall.

Significantly, revelation of the talks comes as it is understood that Premiership Rugby are to explore with the RFU a potential process that would allow London Irish, Wasps and Worcester Warriors to return to professional rugby at some stage as franchises in a restructured Championship, which is likely to be rebranded as ‘Prem 2’.

Any move to engage in an initial high-level exercise to see if an investment might be possible to resurrect the troubled club, which was suspended from all leagues on Tuesday after failing to meet the RFU’s deadline to provide proof of funds and ownership, would likely take at least 12 months.

It is understandable why the prospect of taking some role in one of the most famous brands in club rugby might prove attractive to the IRFU.

Five years ago, the Scottish Rugby Union looked at taking a 20 per cent stake in Newcastle Falcons, having also considered buying Worcester Warriors, so there is something of a precedent here, although any move would have to be agreed and welcomed by the RFU.

The IRFU’s strong financial position means it is likely to be able to resource the club with coaches and staff within their high-performance unit and bring over academy players who are struggling to get game time within the four provincial sides.

Such a move might require a loosening of the English-qualified system if the IRFU wanted to bring through its own players, along with English and overseas players, but it could prove attractive to a rebranded and restructured Premiership if it is able to reconnect with the Irish expat community and bring in fresh investment.

Mick Crossan, who has owned the club since 2013, said he had been left with no other option to file for administration after the failure of a takeover from US consortium NUE Equity headed by Califorian lawyer Chip Sloan. He also called for a radical overhaul of the professional game in England.

Mick Crossan - Getty Images/Mike Hewitt
Mick Crossan - Getty Images/Mike Hewitt

With debts of over £30 million and facing a wind-up petition from HMRC for an unpaid tax bill, Crossan said it was no longer “feasible for me to continue absorbing the multi-million-pound losses of the club each year, indefinitely.”

“As we neared the completion of the deal, I continually received promises, from both NUE Equity and Redstrike, that the acquisition would be completed imminently, and that funds would arrive within days,” said Crossan.

“Right up to Tuesday’s final deadline, we continued to receive verbal assurances from the group. I have trusted that these were not hollow promises and agreed to financially support the club throughout to ensure it could finish the season and give the group time to conclude the deal.

‘Sadly, the promises have failed to materialise, and, despite our very best efforts, it was not possible to meet the conditions set by the RFU Club Financial Viability Group yesterday afternoon.”

Crossan also warned that other clubs were also in a precarious position and called on the administrators of the game to “urgently review their practices from top to bottom.

“The comments from the RFU chair, Tom Ilube, completely overlook the precarious situation other clubs are currently in,” he added.

“Collectively, owners of clubs are working very hard to transform their models, but the lack of real support, at times, is non-existent. And it speaks volumes that Ralph Rimmer and Chris Pilling have been appointed by the Government as independent advisers to work on the future stability of rugby union in the UK.

“The professional game in this country needs to be radically transformed. And the current leadership must urgently review its practices from top to bottom if it has a desire to see professional rugby continue in England.”