Exiles emulate Quins in big-game inspiration

While champions revel in an HQ full house, London Welsh face a 'derby' of their own

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The Independent Online

They are expecting a bumper crowd for the big game today, the loosely defined "London derby" featuring one of the major success stories of 2012. So much, though, for London Welsh and their meeting with London Wasps, some 65 miles north-west of Twickenham. There is also a derby match that has attracted a sell-out crowd to HQ in south-west London.

The national stadium will be filled to its 82,000 capacity for Big Game 5, the fifth festive-time Premiership fixture transplanted to Twickenham. It will be a fitting stage for Harlequins, who face struggling London Irish. Quins have been the English club team of 2012. They started the year leading the domestic field, won their first Premiership title, and are top of the pile heading into the final weekend of the year.

Still, it has been just as big a year for London Welsh. They finished the RFU Championship season in April only fourth in the second-tier table, 14 points behind Bristol, but proceeded to fight their way through the play-offs, and then through a legal battle, to secure the right to promotion. They have had to move their match-day home from dear old Old Deer Park in Richmond to the Kassam Stadium in Oxford – roughly halfway between the London and Welsh parts – but the Exiles are expecting their biggest crowd of the season there for the visit of Wasps.

The attendance might be only a tenth of Twickenham's throng, but that much – 8,200 or so – would offer further evidence that London Welsh are establishing a foothold among the big boys. On the pitch, under the guidance of the former Ospreys coach and Wales flanker, Lyn Jones, they have exceeded expectations, bagging four victories and 20 points before Christmas. A bonus-point win today would put them level with Wasps as the joint third-highest "London" team – behind Quins and Saracens.

That they have hit the Premiership ground running ahead of the relegation pack is a tribute not just to the nous of Jones but to the off-the-field dynamism of John Taylor. The former Wales and Lions flanker was one of the stars of the London Welsh glory days – playing alongside John Dawes, J P R Williams, Gerald Davies and Mervyn Davies in the early 1970s – and as managing director has helped to make the old dragons roar again.

From New Year's Day, he will be replaced in the driving seat by Tony Copsey, stepping aside into a new role as vice-chairman and lead ambassador. A former Llanelli team-mate of Jones, Copsey has experience of building London clubs off the field, as managing director of Quins for seven years and as CEO of Wasps for two and a half years.

"There is no doubt that London Welsh are on an exciting journey, which also means they face probably one of the biggest challenges in sport," the former Wales lock said. "It is a real privilege and extremely exciting to be asked to help lead that challenge."

Quins, a point ahead of Saracens at start of play, have named the same starting XV that won 18-9 at Northampton last Saturday. London Irish are second from bottom with just 12 points, and are on a six-game losing streak. "We've got ourselves into a bit of a bind," their director of rugby, Brian Smith, said. "We need a big performance somewhere along the road to turn things around."

It is fair to say that Bath need a big performance at Sandy Park today to avoid what would be not just a third successive defeat but their first loss in a competitive fixture against Exeter since a 20-6 reverse in the first round of the John Player Cup at the old County Ground in 1978. Nilled at home against Saracens a week ago, Gary Gold's side have Matt Banahan partnering Kyle Eastmond for the first time in the centres.

Leicester have Geoff Parling back for the Saturday tea-time third v fourth encounter against Gloucester at Welford Road. Brad Barritt, another star of England's autumn win against the All Blacks, returns at inside centre for Saracens in their home-from-home game against Northampton at the Stadium MK in Milton Keynes tomorrow afternoon.