London Welsh, promoted to the Premiership last season in controversial circumstances, could see their supremely courageous bid to retain top-flight status scuppered by a red-tape wrangle involving the scrum-half Tyson Keats and the former team manager Mike Scott. The Exiles will appear before a Rugby Football Union competitions tribunal next week and if, as expected, they have league points deducted, they will find themselves up to their eyeballs in the relegation mire.
Keats, a New Zealander, is said to have played nine games without proper registration, and even though he has now been re-registered correctly, the panel, including the Premier Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty, are likely to take a dim view of the affair – especially as Scott has been charged with "conduct prejudicial to the interests of the union or the game". He will answer the charge at a separate hearing, the date of which is to be fixed.
Tony Copsey, the London Welsh chief executive, said last night that the club itself alerted the governing body to the issue after an internal investigation. He said it was "a serious matter", and that he and his colleagues were co-operating fully. He also stressed that Keats was in no way to blame.
The difficulties are thought to surround Keats' nationality status – whether or not he was classed as an overseas player – when he was signed from the defunct Italian franchise Aironi. One RFU source said the panel would have to decide whether the information provided on the initial registration form had been misleading.
It is a savage blow for the Exiles, who have battled to justify their place among the elite after serious difficulties with both the RFU and Premier Rugby last spring, when their promotion bid was initially ruled to be outside of minimum criteria regulations. Their success in overturning that decision was widely applauded but it left precious little time to build a squad, and they were expected to struggle horribly on the field. But they won four games before Christmas to give themselves a fighting chance of survival.
Now, though, London Welsh are second bottom, only three points ahead of Sale. A heavy points deduction would cripple them – especially as their next three Premiership games are away against strong opposition.
Meanwhile, the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, last night released two of the forwards who started last weekend's Six Nations victory over France, the hooker Dylan Hartley and the flanker Courtney Lawes, back to Northampton for Premiership duty on Saturday – a hint that they could well find themselves back on the red-rose bench for the meeting with Italy at Twickenham in 11 days' time.
Interestingly, Lancaster is holding the Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees and the Saracens prop Mako Vunipola in camp. Both have a strong chance of starting against the Azzurri. Twelvetrees played no part in the France game while Vunipola spent only 25 minutes on the field, and it has been the coach's recent habit to make players available to clubs when their active service has been so restricted.
If Twelvetrees is restored to the line-up, it could signal a move to the wing for Manu Tuilagi, in place of the out-of-form Chris Ashton.