Rugby Union: Lions breathing life into Welsh dragon

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The Independent Online
After their glamour days of the 1970s and early 1980s, London Welsh had plummeted to the lower reaches of league rugby a decade later. It has been a struggle but, as David Llewellyn hears, they are on their way back. They are top of their league and today they entertain Gloucester in the Tetley's Bitter Cup.

The days when London Welsh, a dragon in exile, breathed fire over all- comers, set matches alight with glorious exploits and regularly drew crowds of 4,000 plus for a club game are long over. They disappeared with the advent of league rugby. The game's headlong rush into the embrace of professionalism heralded a sharp decline in fortunes at Old Deer Park.

In their pomp they boasted no fewer than seven Lions, including the brilliant John Dawes, captain of the triumphant tour to New Zealand in 1971 as well as John Taylor, Gerald Davies, JPR Williams, Mervyn Davies, Geoff Evans and Mike Roberts. At their height more than 25 years ago they met Gloucester at the quarter-final stage of the inaugural RFU Club Knockout Competition, as it was then known.

Three sponsors later, today's visit of Gloucester in the fourth round of what is now the Tetley's Bitter Cup is a like a snapshot of past glories. Dawes is now president of London Welsh, and together with the other half- dozen Lions legends, he is bent on restoring pride to a once great club.

A bleak midwinter last year culminated in the departure of the coach, Mike Gosling. A consortium fronted by John Taylor, the former Wales and Lions flanker, stepped in to reorganise the administration and running of the club and at the same time injected around pounds 500,000 into the club coffers. A share issue raised a further pounds 150,000.

While the Exiles had already hauled themselves from the murky anonymity of the former League Five (South) they were looking wobbly again some 12 months ago. Although they escaped relegation last season it was obvious they needed some disciplined guidance on the training ground and to that end the consortium approached Clive Griffiths, a former Welsh international at Union and League, to coach them.

Since his arrival in June, Welsh have hauled themselves back to the brink of better things. They currently reside - albeit by a solitary point - at the top of Jewson National League One (effectively Division Three) and the aim is to gain promotion to the Allied Dunbar Premiership Two at the end of this season. "It could be really bad for us if we don't win promotion," admits Dawes candidly. "All our hopes are on going up. It's all or nothing."

Griffiths has few doubts. He has coached the Great Britain Rugby League side and is still coach of Wales' 13-man team. He was a full-back with Llanelli before taking the route so many have followed, joining St Helens in 1979.

"Promotion is a realistic target," says Griffiths, who will not entertain the prospect of missing out on it. "Perish the thought," he declares.

"Although we have a difficult run-in in the second half of the season, I am optimistic of our chances."

He is not so certain about how they will do against Gloucester. "We have injuries to key players," explains Griffiths, "and certainly the league has to be our priority." Dawes echoes that and, with his sights on the league, says: "The most important thing is for us not to pick up any injuries against Gloucester."

Griffiths is understandably reluctant to pick players carrying knocks just to put up a brave show when a vital league match beckons against Lydney the weekend after. For all that, he acknowledges the import of the fixture. "To start the new year with a prestigious Cup tie against Gloucester and to find ourselves at the top of the table, well, you have to pinch yourself."

For Dawes the arrival of Gloucester, "is a little bit of the past. A chance for reminiscence. It's good to have a senior club at Old Deer Park once again. Gloucester by tradition are one of the top clubs, whatever their struggles they have remained in the top flight. They bring good support.

"And while our chances of winning are not as good as theirs must be, we'll still have a good day."

What Griffiths and the rest of the London Welsh hierarchy will want to avoid is a repeat of the spectacle of that first ever Cup meeting between the two sides more than a quarter of a century ago. It finished 9-4 to Gloucester and Dawes remembers: "We were well beaten. I think, apart from JPR Williams, we had our strongest side out. But typical Gloucester, they did us up front and at half-back. They just had a stranglehold on things. It was a very dour match."

Griffiths has, at least, instilled an expansive style on the club since his arrival, but he is aware of the inherent dangers of that approach. "With our style of play we will always leak points," he admits, "because we take a lot of chances, particularly from deep. Most of the time they come off, but occasionally we have given away silly seven-pointers."

That is a legacy of his own playing days with Llanelli. "I was brought up on expansive running rugby in the 1970s when Wales were so successful. And the philosophies that were handed down to me by the coaches of that golden era - Carwyn James and Norman Gale at Llanelli, Leighton Davies at Cardiff Institute - were of 15-man rugby. That is the way I think the game has to be played. I know the value of involving everyone in the game and I think everyone enjoys the game far more, players and spectators.

"After all we are in the entertainment business now. People will come and watch a good brand of football, which excites them. And," he breaks of to chuckle, "certainly we have caused a few people's hearts to flutter these last four months."

A good show against Gloucester, capped by promotion back to the top flight where many feel they belong, should also get pulses racing again. The dragon awakes.