The Blog

London Welsh Deserve Better From The Aviva Premiership's Closed Shop

Newcastle Falcons have been saved from relegation from rugby's Aviva Premiership while London Welsh are denied their shot at the top flight because of rigid rules that favour the status quo. Is rugby union really as progressive as it thinks?

Okay, I'll declare an interest early on.

Living in south west London, I have an inclination to cheerlead for rugby in the area. We are blessed with an abundance of national level clubs stretching from Rosslyn Park near Putney down to Esher in Surrey, giving union fans plenty of choice if they're not too partisan in their tastes; a different club match each week is more than possible.

Dominating the area are Harlequins, one of union's historically 'big clubs' and who may finally get rid of the tag of perennial underachievers if they can claim the Premiership title at Twickenham this weekend. Hoping to join them in the Premiership next season were London Welsh, near-neighbours and the one local side in recent years who have looked most likely to win a hard-earned promotion via the risible group play-off system introduced once Sky decided to get involved in the division.

That the Exiles look unlikely to be promoted because of Premiership regulations - unless they win on appeal - is another example of the short-sightedness of the Premiership bosses.

Those execs might like to remember it was not that long ago that Harlequins and London Welsh met at National One level after Quins had suffered an ignominious relegation. Unsurprisingly, they won immediate promotion but a few years later they blotted their copybook again with the 'Bloodgate' affair.

Their coach at that time was Dean Richards, who ironically is just about to take charge at Newcastle Falcons, the club relegated from the Aviva Premiership but which has been saved by London Welsh's blackballing.

So, back to those rules... London Welsh's first problem is their wonderfully picturesque ground, the Old Deer Park next door to Kew Gardens and just a stone's throw from two other famous clubs of old, London Scottish and Richmond, but which can't accommodate 10,000 spectators.

The next issue is the hope of groundsharing - which Wasps, Saracens, Sale and London Irish already do - with Oxford United FC, 56 miles away. That's some distance for 'home' games, so Welsh can't be faulted for trying to find a solution but because they won't have 'primacy of tenure' on the Kassam Stadium, they won't be able to agree to fixture changes from the Premiership and, perhaps more tellingly, from TV. Yes, that means Sky again.

Leaving aside the spurious 'tenure' rule, let's look at those 10,000 fans. The Falcons averaged 5,347 per Premiership match last season. For 11 league home fixtures, that's 58,820 fans. Not bad in a football-mad region but still only around 6,000 more than St James' pulls in for a single home game. Three matches topped 7,000 but the 10 quid a ticket ploy helped to inflate those numbers. The point is, if the Falcons haven't needed a 10,000-capacity stadium for the past 10 years or more, will London Welsh?

Not with average league attendances of 1,545 in 2011/12 they won't, so why should the Premiership force it on them? Just like the closed shop that rugby league's Superleague has become since relegation was dispensed with, the Premiership is showing its priorities lie with the status quo. Yes, Exeter and Worcester successfully broke through but they are most definitely the exceptions rather than the rule. Why can't the rugby authorities work with London Welsh to develop their potential rather than just knocking them back on the eve of their graduation?

London Welsh have not shied away from professionalism - it very nearly cost them their club - and are ambitious. To deny them their opportunity on the biggest stage in domestic rugby is neither fair nor progressive.