You could argue that after being told hours before the kickoff of their Championship Final 1st leg back in May that they would not be promoted, London Welsh have been put through the wringer enough. Yet as reports began to swirl across Twitter on Friday afternoon that their appeal had been successful, they were made to wait longer still for official confirmation of the result. When it came, the reaction was understandably euphoric.
It may have taken an appeal with a hired legal team and a hearing that took two days instead of one, but nobody can argue with the result. The Exiles missed the deadline for submitting their criteria application back at the end of March but as soon as it became apparent that the Kassam Stadium was available and given how London Irish, Saracens, London Wasps and Sale are all currently in similar groundshares away from their original bases, little truly stood in their way. Rather than a repeat of the situation in 2002 when Rotherham were denied promotion despite winning the Championship title, Welsh have correctly been granted their rightful ascendancy to the big league.
Now though, things will get interesting. With 61 days to go until the season’s opener – the location of which will be revealed on Wednesday – Welsh have admitted that they need to recruit around eight potential starting players, particularly up front in the tight five. Given that quality performers in this area do not come cheap, any transactions will have to be astute and preferably for players with Premiership experience who are familiar with the rigours of 22 gruelling rounds of fixtures.
The club in the past few seasons have operated on a successful loan basis with London Irish, but have lost Max Lahiff and Jack Moates back to their fellow Exiles and are unlikely to continue to receive players from them now the two clubs are Premiership rivals. Looking ahead, they have already recruited the likes of Damian Browne, Ed Williamson and Sonny Parker – all the calibre of players Welsh need. Plenty more though are required from where they came, although Welsh already possess talent in Seb Jewell and Gordon Ross, captain Jon Mills, full back Alex Davies and the impressive Hudson Tonga’uhia.
One name that was instantly linked with the club following the news of their promotion however was Gavin Henson. The enigmatic Bachelor comes with an arguably unnecessary level of baggage for a club that is trying to establish themselves, but his talent is undeniable. Lyn Jones knows Henson well from their time at the Ospreys but if Henson were to find himself in another ice cube throwing incident or on the set of another TV show within months of signing, then London Welsh would be open to ridicule. If Henson truly buys into the club’s ethos, keep his head down and performs considerably better than his last stint in the Premiership with Saracens, then there is potential for him to shine.
It would be wrong to not discuss Welsh’s victory without mentioning Newcastle, who in the wake of Friday afternoon’s news made clear that they would not be contesting the matter further. The demotion to the Championship for them represents a chance to start afresh, and when you consider the quality they have recruited this summer – Rory Lawson, Carlo del Fava, Alex Crockett and Chris York – and the few departures from Kingston Park, there is little doubt that they have a strong chance to come straight back up for the 2013/2014 season. For too long the club have spent big salaries on under-performing players and employed coaching teams who have failed to deliver. This is their chance, under the wise eye of Dean Richards, to become a force again.
For now though, all eyes are on Old Deer Park and how Welsh develop over the next two months. They will go from playing in front of 3000 people at Moseley to 24,000 at Welford Road, not to mention Amlin Challenge Cup trips to Stade Français and Italy. It will be an enormous test of limited resources, but the heart and soul is already there. London Welsh refused to give up on their promotion bid and that hunger will stand them in good stead. Their promotion truly is a victory for sport and common sense.
by Ben Coles