The shrinking map of English professional club rugby has lost another familiar name with London Irish’s formal ejection from the Premiership. The Exiles are the third Premiership club in nine months to dissolve financially, reducing the country’s flagship league to 10 teams and leaving around 100 players and staff jobless.
As widely anticipated, the mooted US consortium failed to complete their proposed takeover of the club by the deadline of 4pm on Tuesday, triggering the club’s removal from the English league pyramid. The London Irish amateur club still compete at Level 6, however, so the 125-year-old club identity will not entirely vanish.
It has prompted the Rugby Football Union to warn that the finances of professional rugby in England need fundamental reform. “We currently contribute £25m to the Premiership each year but cannot continue to invest in failing business models,” the RFU chairman, Tom Ilube, said. “That means tough investment decisions. All three clubs that have failed this season have had fragile business models for many years.”
The RFU also made clear it wanted to provide “clarity” to other Premiership sides but the union’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, acknowledged it was another grim day for the sport. “This is desperately sad news for everyone who is part of the London Irish community as well as all the players, fans, staff and volunteers for whom this club means so much,” Sweeney said. He stressed, however, that the decision followed six months of ultimately doomed takeover talks, with players and staff still waiting for 50% of their May salaries. The club have also been served with a winding‑up petition by HM Revenue and Customs for unpaid tax.
Irish’s demise means, among other things, that Bristol Bears will now feature in the European Champions Cup next season despite having finished ninth in the Premiership last season. It also leaves Irish’s players in an unenviable position, with other Premiership club rosters for next season pretty much full and the salary cap not due to rise from £5m to £6.4m until the 2024‑25 season. Some players will switch to other Premiership sides, with the England squad members Henry Arundell and Tom Pearson both coveted by Bath, but a number of their teammates face an uncertain future.
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It could even force several individuals to reassess professional rugby as a career, with few gaps left in French Top 14 rosters and the market for out-of-contract players saturated following the demise of Wasps and Worcester. A hardship fund has been announced by the RFU and Premiership Rugby to offer support to affected players but it will not ease the heartache of those for whom Irish has been less a rugby club than a glorious state of mind. The attack‑minded team finished fifth last season and boasted one of the best academies in the country, which the RFU says it will now take over if necessary.
There is also the matter of the club’s training headquarters in Sunbury-on-Thames that hosts the club’s amateur section. London Irish amateurs have a 15-year lease to play at the club’s Hazelwood complex but the land is owned by London Irish Holdings, which was one of the companies named in the winding up petition served to the club’s officials last week by HRMC.
The professional arm of the club, however, is now effectively defunct, with debts in the region of £30m. As with Wasps and Worcester the blame lies with multiple individuals and organisations, many of whom have been living in denial. Signing the former Wallaby lock Adam Coleman, a decent player but not an absolute world-beater, on a reported £900,000‑per‑year salary represented a huge punt in 2019-20 and looks even crazier now.
The club’s lengthy spell in Reading also diverted them away from their core support in London and, more recently, Brentford FC were not keen to extend the Exiles’ stay at the Gtech Community Stadium. While supporters enjoyed the atmosphere at the club’s new “home” many felt there was insufficient marketing to try to woo floating local fans.
It leaves the entire English game at a crossroads with several other clubs struggling under the weight of Covid loan repayments and, as yet, no firm agreement on how the second-tier Championship fits with any rebranded Premiership structure. The existing model is clearly broken, with the government having already announced it is stepping in to help the RFU and Premiership Rugby to work towards “sustainability in the professional game”.
In a statement London Irish acknowledged the 2023‑24 suspension and despite everything insisted “the club continues to remain in active discussions with the RFU as to any circumstances that may result in the suspension being lifted”.
The French club Grenoble, meanwhile, have been relegated to the third tier of their country’s league structure and given a six-point deduction next season for financial reasons. The club have lodged an appeal.