London Irish, a club that have been in existence for 125 years, have been cast into oblivion after the Rugby Football Union confirmed the club’s suspension from all leagues for failing to provide proof of funds and ownership for next season.
The move brings to a devastating close to the darkest season for professional club rugby union in England, which has already seen Wasps and Worcester Warriors go to the wall, and casts further doubt about the financial suitability of the league.
Telegraph Sport revealed on Tuesday that the club had missed the 4pm deadline to pay the outstanding salaries for May and that there was no hope of an 11th-hour takeover by a US consortium, making the suspension inevitable.
Premiership Rugby is now faced with no option but to fast-track plans for a 10-team league for the start of next season – just two years after the RFU council agreed to an expansion to 14.
The players meanwhile now face a scramble to find new clubs, which will be far from easy given that most of their rivals in the Premiership and in the Top 14 in France have already committed their spending for next season or are already at the top of their respective salary caps.
Henry Arundell, the rising England star, is set to hold talks with Bath later this week, while the Scottish Rugby Union are understood to be interested in signing Ben White. Tom Pearson is expected to join Northampton Saints, while Will Joseph, Ollie Hoskins and Ben Loader are set to hold talks with Saracens.
Mick Crossan, the owner of London Irish since 2013, had hoped to prevent the exodus by selling the club to a private equity consortium, headed up by Californian lawyer Alfred ‘Chip’ Sloan, after it had run up debts of over £30 million.
The club have also been recently served with a winding-up petition by HMRC over an unpaid tax bill.
However, despite repeated assurances from the consortium over the last two months that the deal remained on course, the RFU said it had been left with no choice but to suspend the club after the consortium had ignored repeated requests for evidence of proof of funds and ownership.
“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,” said Bill Sweeney, chief executive of the RFU.
“Despite requesting this evidence over the last six months and receiving assurances on multiple occasions that we would receive proof of ownership and funds; it has not materialised.
“In the absence of transparent proof of reliable long-term funding, and for the duty of care for all involved at the club, the sad decision has now been taken to suspend the club from RFU leagues.”
Players and staff at the club were said to be feeling a mix of anger and desolation, after an extension granted by the RFU financial viability group last week because Crossan said he would pay two-weeks’ salary to give the takeover the chance to go through came to nothing.
Last month Crossan had to step in to meet the £500,000 cost of April’s payroll when it was six days late after the US consortium failed to complete the takeover citing a variety of reasons.
The RFU, along with Premiership Rugby and the RPA, the players’ union, have established a hardship fund, thought to be worth several hundred thousand pounds, to support players and staff in most need.
— The RPA (@theRPA) June 6, 2023
“Collectively we have established a hardship fund to support those players and staff most in need and we will be working closely with London Irish to confirm what the future of rugby at the club looks like. With regret, this will not be in any league next season.”
The RFU will also take over the London Irish academy, while there is hope that the London Irish amateur club, Wild Geese, who compete in Thames 2 league, will continue to be able to play at the club’s Hazelwood ground.
Both the RFU and Premiership Rugby now face an urgent task proving they are capable of steering the game out of this financial mess in the week that the UK government felt compelled to appoint two independent advisers to oversee negotiations over a new professional game agreement next year.
Significantly, Tom Ilube, the RFU chairman, suggested that the governing body would have to reassess its investment in professional rugby.
“We currently contribute £25 million to the Premiership each year but cannot continue to invest in failing business models. That means tough investment decisions,” said Ilube.
Simon Massie-Taylor, the Prem Rugby chief executive, said the league was already making “significant progress” to ensure that it “prospers in the season ahead” and left the door open for London Irish to return in the future. Wasps have already been handed a potential lifeline to return as a franchise in a restructured Championship.
“We are committed to working with all stakeholders to create a professional rugby system that London Irish can re-enter at the right time,” he said.