London Irish were clinging to their place in the Premiership on Tuesday night after it emerged that the Rugby Football Union was prepared to grant a seven-day extension for the proposed takeover of the club to be completed. Significant doubts remain, however, as to whether it would amount to anything more than a stay of execution.
The RFU had set Irish a firm deadline of Tuesday, insisting that a takeover by a US consortium was completed or the current owner, Mick Crossan, provided proof of being able to fund the club for the entirety of next season. Failing either of those, Irish would be suspended.
In a potential shot at survival for the club, on Tuesday the RFU expressed a surprise willingness to extend the deadline by a week on the basis Irish could guarantee the May payroll would be met by Wednesday and the prospective buyers could provide key documentation.
While Crossan has said he will cover this month’s wage bill of around £500,000, it is unclear whether the necessary documentation was provided to the RFU on Tuesday and there remains widespread concern that the extension could simply kick the can down the road.
The RFU’s club finance viability working group was due to meet on Tuesday night to consider the plan for an extension before making a recommendation to the board, with an announcement on Wednesday. If the board rubber-stamps an extension having not received key documentation, it would add to the sense of the RFU merely delaying the inevitable.
Hopes were raised when London Irish players were sent a message from the club hierarchy on Tuesday morning outlining that the RFU chief executive, Bill Sweeney, was prepared to grant an extension based on the verbal promise of proof of funds from the consortium. As of lunchtime on Tuesday the RFU had not received the documentation and the union has been chasing it for months.
An extension would give the consortium more time to complete the takeover but there is scepticism as to what can be achieved in a week given the length of time already taken.
The uncertainty would also be prolonged for Irish staff and playing squad, who have been seeking to line up moves in the event the club are suspended. Henry Arundell is on Bath’s radar, Paddy Jackson on Newcastle’s and Tom Pearson is attracting interest from Bath, Bristol and a host of other suitors.
The RFU is desperate to avoid a third club falling into the abyss inside eight months after Worcester and Wasps both went into administration. Neither condition laid out when the RFU issued Tuesday’s deadline has been met, but the union’s willingness to provide an extension demonstrates its desperation, alongside that of Premiership Rugby Limited. The flipside is the potential for another drawn-out saga and there is an acceptance that Worcester and Wasps should not have been allowed to start this season.
Losing another club would heap more pressure on both the RFU and PRL. In November, Sweeney was accused of being “asleep on the job”, while he and his PRL counterpart, Simon Massie-Taylor, were also blamed for “failure on an epic scale” at a parliamentary inquiry into the demises of Worcester and Wasps.