Justice for London Welsh, but has it been left far too late?
NEARLY two months too late, and less than two months from the start of the season, an appeal panel has reached a conclusion that, to most people in rugby, appeared foregone. The decision to deny promotion to Championship winners London Welsh was overturned and the Exiles were belatedly granted entry to an Aviva Premiership sweetshop that appears to be selling only one thing. Fudge.
London Welsh based their case on natural justice – they had won the Championship play-offs after regular season winners Bristol had fallen at the last but one hurdle – and on precedent – although their Old Deer Park ground did not meet Premiership criteria, their proposed alternative was no more in breach of the regulations than the home grounds of over a third of Premiership clubs.
They won it for another reason altogether, the appeals panel decreeing that to deny them promotion was contrary to EU and UK competition law.
Which is all very convenient for the likes of Bath, London Irish, Sale, London Wasps and Saracens who all struggled to measure up to the criteria they, as part of Premier Rugby, were happy to impose on clubs who wanted to join them in the top flight.
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This week's report that the RFU is set to review those minimum standards – almost certainly with a view to dropping them altogether – will further reduce the potential for embarrassment at clubs who, for all sorts of entirely understandable reasons, have done little more than nod in the direction of the stated ambition for each Premiership club to operate from its own purpose-built and well-equipped stadium.
It's ironic that Newcastle, one of the clubs that do match that model, will now be condemned to the relegation that should automatically have followed their bottom-place finish in the Premiership, while the incentive for those who stayed up to get their houses in order has been removed.
While the RFU decision to review the ground criteria may be an admission that the ambition that underpinned them was unrealistic, it does appear to give carte blanche to clubs who have always preferred to spend their money on bolstering their squads with foreign mercenaries rather than on improving facilities for home-based fans.
London Welsh have little option but to join them – with the handicap that they have far less time to assemble a squad capable of holding its own in the top flight. Although their scouts will have been scouring Samoa, South Africa and Argentina for cheap talent, the lack of certainty about the club's immediate future will have deterred many a likely recruit from putting pen to paper.
How much that will handicap the Exiles remains to be seen, but while they will feel inspired by the way Worcester and Exeter have managed to survive in the top flight against similar odds, the likelihood is that the Exiles will soon be returning to the Championship.
Newcastle, meanwhile, have been able to recruit in the belief that they were staying in the Premiership. Although some of their signings might have been contingent on that eventuality, most will remain in place to power a Championship campaign that, even before a ball has been kicked, is an odds-on favourite to end in success.
This time next year the Aviva Premiership is set to look very much like it did three months ago. There will, not before time, be some improvements in prospects for supporters. Sale have already stopped playing at cramped and antiquated Edgeley Park, while Saracens have abandoned Vicarage Road – for which journalists and visiting fans will forever offer heartfelt thanks. London Irish will continue to be tenants at the Madejski Stadium – which at least offers a comfortable experience – while Bath and Wasps will continue to frustrate their supporters.
The news that the latter have been saved from bankruptcy offers some hope for the future of one of the powerhouses of the English game, although Ken Moss's consortium is likely to have more pressing concerns than how to extricate the club from its tenancy agreement at the deeply unsatisfactory Adams Park.
Which leaves Bath to get to grips with a problem that has beset them long before I cut my teeth as a rugby journalist. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I reported on a story that the club was going to quit the Recreation Ground and move to a stadium more suited both to the modern era and their ambitions. For all sorts of reasons that has still to come about. Nothing is ever straightforward in the Aviva Premiership – as London Welsh are about to find out.