London Welsh 13 Leicester Tigers 38 – Kassam Stadium – Sunday 3rd September 2012
Mike Miles travels west to see the Premiership debut of London Welsh, in Oxfordshire (obviously!).
I have a vague memory of going to watch London Welsh play at Old Deer Park many years ago. I think it was probably in the early-seventies, a time when the side was crammed with Welsh internationals and the humiliation of England was an annual event.
The time since has not been good for the club, but now, here they are, back in the Aviva Premiership on merit and a good legal team.
I normally kick the season off with a visit to the London Double-header at Twickenham, but the Exiles’ first appearance in the top flight was against Leicester Tigers at the Kassam Stadium, so a trip to Oxford was more enticing.
I have never been to the Kassam stadium, but the London Welsh web-site offered no help whatsoever in the way of directions, something of an oversight given that they are presumably hoping to entice their old home fans from London as well as interested neutrals around Oxford.
The ground is shared with League Two side Oxford United, and their web site was a little more forthcoming. However, it claimed the stadium was well signposted from the main routes into Oxford. Alas, not from the one I took. It also advised that there were 2000 free parking spaces at the stadium itself, though with thoughts of long queues to exit afterwards I settled for a road-side space. A half-mile walk away but worth it. Chatting to Leicester fans around me, they had had big problems getting through Oxford.
There are some other obvious off-field problems to be addressed as well.
The compact ground was roughly half full, although the gaping gap onto a car park at one end will always sap the atmosphere.-and presumably allow the cold winds to whistle through in winter.
There were also problems with the ticketing system. A quarter of an hour before kick-off I passed two booths piled high with tickets waiting to be claimed.
It can’t have helped that earlier in the week the clubs web-site had mistakenly announced the game was a sell-out.
Nevertheless, the match might never have happened if the RFU had had their way. The Welsh won the Championship play-off final last season and had they thought, reached the promised land of the Premiership. However, the RFU, using restrictive ground criteria as a barrier, denied them entry. The Welsh refused to be locked out , and led by their QC chairman, Bleddyn Phillips, the club moved its home stadium from Old deer park to the Kassam in Oxford and won a landmark High Court ruling over the summer. But the reality is that they have only half the funding of their Premiership rivals, and due to the delays of the court case, had less than two months in which to make signings and preparations for the new season. No wonder they are odds on favourites to be relegated. And their first opponents are Premiership-final fixtures the Leicester Tigers.
A remarkable seven London Welsh players were picked in the legendary 1971 Lions squad – still the only Lions team to have won a series in New Zealand.- including John Taylor, who , as the current managing director, provides the current team with a direct link to that glorious past. At half-time Welsh paraded some of their internationals from that earlier period. They might have been tempted to supply them with kit 20 minutes in as Leicester, remorsely exploiting weaknesses and mistakes, mauled their way into a 17-point lead and graphically highlighted the difference between Premiership and Championship rugby. Of the new signings none apart from Gavin Henson has been a regular top tier test player, and he is missing for a month having sustained a fractured cheekbone in a “friendly” against the Scarlets. The front five included Krill Kulemin,the Russia lock, Paulica Ion, the Romania prop, and Franck Montanella, the France prop, each of whom could be forgiven for failing to join the pre-match rendition of Cwm Rhondda by the London Welsh male voice choir.
It could certainly have been a lot worse. London Welsh were not exactly rejoicing at the end of this 25-point defeat, but there was an underlying feeling of relief that a potential embarrassment had been averted. As the chap next to me in the gents afterwards put it:” At least we weren’t thrashed”. By scoring two tries, competing gamely in the physical battles and generally preventing Leicester from running way with the contest the promoted team comfortably achieved respectability.
And the Welsh’s next opponents…away to current Champions Harlequins.
But London Welsh’s fate will not be determined by how they fare against Leicester and Harlequins but by their results against clubs who inhabit the bottom half of the table with them