Rugby Union: Time to capitalise on the exiles

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The Independent Online
LONDON'S three clubs of rugby exiles have made a big contribution to the game's history but they could have an even bigger role to play in the future fortunes of the countries they represent. That's why it is sad to see London Scottish under the threat of having their place in the top division sold to Bristol and their supporters have my fullest sympathy.

Their protests against the Bristol takeover of their team are falling on deaf ears and their main hope is that the Rugby Football Union can think of a way of scuppering the deal whereby Bristol get into Premiership One through the back door.

It is ironic that Scottish were the team who put Bristol down at the end of last season and that now the muscle power of money is likely to restore Bristol in their place. Not that I'm criticising Bristol. Rugby union has become such a twisted world that the slogan seems to be every man for himself, and since Bristol won't be guaranteed promotion even if they win the second division you can hardly blame them for making this unprecedented attempt to secure their future prospects for the purchase price of pounds 1m.

London Scottish wouldn't go out of existence. They would remain a thriving amateur club with 15 teams, but the loss of their big-club status would be hard to bear - and Scottish rugby as a whole would suffer. So much so that it wouldn't surprise me if the Scottish Rugby Union stepped in at the last minute.

Perhaps the Welsh coach Graham Henry will put the idea into their heads with the ambitious plans he revealed last week to help London Welsh bring back the glory days that provided so many star players for the successful Welsh teams of the 1970s. Under Wales's former rugby league coach Clive Griffiths, the Welsh exiles are lying fourth in Premiership Two and Henry went to see them play before Christmas and to conduct a training session.

Last week, Henry met Griffiths for further discussions about how Welsh can develop into a top club again. He is very impressed with their ambition after spending so long in the doldrums and sees them playing a major part in improving the strength of Wales at international level. I am delighted that Welsh should find themselves suddenly presented with this great opportunity after so long spent as the weakest of London's celtic cousins.

Their Scottish and Irish counterparts have recently flourished and there's every likelihood that the Irish will continue to do so. Dick Best has been an ideal coach for them; very straight with a talent for man-management.

The fact that he has used a large number of overseas players to give the team a boost this season is not a problem as far as I am concerned. Obviously, the more Irish players in the team the better, but the first priority for them is to create a strong focal point for Ireland in London.

That should also be the urgent aim of the Scottish and the Welsh. Henry, who has established a worldwide database to monitor the progress of players qualified to play for Wales, sees the London club's part in that operation as crucial.

London Welsh estimate that there are a quarter of a million first-generation Welsh in the home counties alone. Adding second and third generations would increase that figure to around a million. Welsh players and coaches are plentiful among other leading sides in the Allied Dunbar League. Wales could have a London-based super club if all this potential was realised. The Welsh Rugby Union have put money into ailing clubs at home. Maybe they should think about supporting this venture. It could prove a lucrative investment.

In the 1970s, London Welsh produced players such as Gerald Davies, JPR Williams, Mervyn Davies, John Taylor, Mike Roberts, Jim Shanklin, Keith Hughes, Geoff Evans, Tony Gray, Kevin Bowring and many others. That golden era may never be repeated but even a close replica would give Henry the extra manpower he is looking for as he seeks a big increase in the number of Welsh players exposed to the highest level of club rugby.

There's also the consideration of overseas players with Welsh qualification, such as Shane Howarth. Players of that calibre who may want to come here to play for Wales may prefer to play for a London club rather than go to Wales. A club like Welsh, steeped in the Henry way of playing, could be a magnet for them.

If all this makes sense for Wales it should make sense for the others. I don't know why I'm giving free advice to Scotland, but if they stand by and watch London Scottish die they must be barmy.

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