London Welsh's journey has not been a conventional one. In 2009 they slipped into administration, fearing for their survival in what had recently become the Chamionship. Miraculously, three years on they find themselves in the Premiership, and once again they are fighting to stay there.
Controversy has, sadly, followed them on their journey to the present. They reaped the benefits of the largely ridiculous Championship promotion system, in which a team finishing 8th (in a league of 12 teams) can feasibly be promoted. Admittedly the system does make that difficult, but the fact that there is even a possibility that the Doncaster Knights (last season's 8th-placed team) could have been playing Premiership Rugby is a little silly.
As it was, Welsh finished fourth, 14 points behind regular season table-toppers Bristol, and advanced through the knockout stages to beat the Cornish Pirates in the final and win promotion. Celebrations were tempered, however, as they had recently been told that their ground did not meet Premiership criteria. They suggested a move to Oxford's Kassam Stadium and were turned down - but then accepted on appeal.
So, plenty of the controversial about the manner in which they entered the Premiership. Once there, not many who didn't regularly don the colours of Welsh gave them much of a chance of surviving. Their opening couple of rounds went the way everyone expected, losing heavily to two of the title favourites, but they backed that up with a couple of highly impressive wins. They may only have won two more since then, but the manner of their play and the enthusiasm they have brought to proceedings have been most encouraging.
Before last weekend, they had remained competitive in nearly all their fixtures (a round 2 mauling at champions Harlequins aside), picking up six losing bonus points in the process. Fans and pundits alike jumped on the London Welsh bandwagon. In an age when the value of promotion and relegation is hotly contested, the Welsh exiles were a walking advert for it, showing that a plucky underdog can add value to the competition. If the Premiership had been ring-fenced they never would have made it here.
The last few months have seen one setback after another, however. They haven't won since 1st December, losing to fellow relegation strugglers Sale at home and being smashed by Exeter last weekend. All this has seen them slip to 11th in the table, just three points clear of bottom spot.
The last thing they needed was news that they faced disciplinary action and a points deduction. Sadly, that is exactly what came their way this week. They are accused of fielding an ineligible player (New Zealand-born Tyson Keats) in no less than nine Premiership matches. The form in previous situations like this has seen teams deducted two points for each game the player was involved in. If that happened here the relegation battle would be done and dusted.
Their one saving grace is that the club themselves were the ones that brought the error to the RFU's attention. The man supposedly responsible is no longer with the club. Mitigating circumstances, perhaps.
However, they have broken the rules, whether knowingly or not, and deserve to be punished. It is a real shame though, as they have brought passion, colour and determination into a league that they were never expected to feel at home in. Hopefully, common sense will prevail and they will still be left with something to fight for this season. The Premiership next year would be significantly the worse without them.
- Sports & Recreation
- London Welsh
- Premiership Rugby