When the ranting and raging over their right to promotion as Championship winners was finally done, London Welsh were left with this: a first-ever match in the Premiership today, at their home away from home in Oxford, against the nine-time champions Leicester, with a trip to the current title holders, Harlequins, to follow on Friday. The toughest of starts, in the least propitious of circumstances, but Welsh's Scottish fly-half Gordon Ross cannot stop smiling. "We're behind in our planning and we can come up with a list of excuses – but we're not doing that," he says. "We're going out to play, to do what we can, and if we can finish 11th we'll be absolutely ecstatic."
Ross, 34, is one of only 10 London Welsh players with experience of the Premiership: he joined Leeds from Edinburgh in 2002, and later played for Saracens. It is 10 years to the weekend since he made his Premiership debut as Leeds – after finishing bottom the previous season – kicked off at home to a heavyweight Leicester. The Tykes beat the Tigers 26-13 in a huge upset, and went on to finish fifth.
"I remember the match, and the celebrations we had that night going into the next day," says Ross, who kicked 14 of Leeds' points. "The big difference is that almost all the Leeds players had played in the Premiership before. You can't say that about most of the London Welsh guys. But though it's a cliche, the game's not played on paper. Funny results do happen."
For most of last season, as Welsh finished only fourth in the initial 22-match Championship programme that ended in February, promotion seemed far off. They timed their surge perfectly for the play-offs, leading to May's final against Cornish Pirates. But the first leg – a spectacular 37-21 victory in which Ross's playmaking and dropped goal were outstanding – coincided with the depressing news, appallingly timed, that London Welsh had failed the Premiership's entry criteria. They appealed to an independent panel.
Everyone, including London Welsh, agreed on two points: the famous "primacy of tenure" (which may be more usefully termed "sufficient tenure to stage a match when the broadcasters say so") serves a commercial and sporting purpose; and Welsh did not have it at the otherwise serviceable Kassam Stadium. The panel decided it was anti-competitive that up to four Premiership clubs did not have primacy of tenure either, and there had been unnecessary dithering in increasing the exemptions to five. London Welsh won.
"I was in London about to go to a show," Ross recalls, "and all of a sudden I got the phone call saying we were up. I was quite emotional – and I celebrated promotion with a glass of champagne by myself! Later, a few of us players met up and had a drink to celebrate." With a laugh, he adds: "And then you realise, 'God, we've got some work to do now'."
So here they are, 56 miles by road from their Richmond home, with a predicted attendance of 7,000 today and just two supporters' buses running from the London area. "Every game this year we've got to be at our best just to get a point, never mind a win," says Ross. "Some people might say we want to put two fingers up to the RFU but that's not come up in our team meetings."
It did not have to be like this, scrambling to get new players and living on hope. Two French front-rowers arrived last week, the club's gamble on Gavin Henson must wait six weeks while his fractured cheekbone mends though the arrival of the former Wales centre Sonny Parker, Sale hooker Neil Briggs, prop Paulica Ion from London Irish and scrum-half Nick Runciman returning from Gloucester will bring a little of that big-league knowhow.
In the late 1990s the then Wales coach Graham Henry proposed London Welsh as a base for the Principality's fifth region. Parochialism in Wales and nimbyism in England killed a fine idea at birth.
And, of course, London Welsh were a premier club before anyone thought of the Premiership. In the 1960s and '70s they were fêted for their legion of internationals, beautifully appointed clubhouse (Richard Burton and Liz Taylor would stop by en route to Hollywood) and Welsh roots planted in ever-so-English Richmond. But when leagues arrived in 1987 they were on the slide, from the second division to the fifth tier; flirting with the London regional leagues and losing in the mid-90s to Reading, North Walsham and Basingstoke – teams not fit to tie the bootlaces of Gerald Davies, JPR Williams and Mervyn Davies.
Coaches Mike Gosling, Clive Griffiths, Adrian Davies, Martin Jones, Danny Wilson and now Lyn Jones raised standards; board members Kelvin Bryon, David Hammond and Bill Carey Evans wrote the cheques. The Exiles made it through a dodgy period of administration in 2009.
They do not have the infrastructure of Worcester and Exeter, the exemplars of promoted sides. But if their pack – schooled by Kingsley Jones as temporary forwards coach – is up to it, there are promising backs in Joe Ajuwa, Hudson Tonga'uiha and Canada's Phil MacKenzie.
"I still believe I can read a game not too badly, even if some of the guys can't understand a word I say," says Ross the Scot. "John Taylor [former Wales and Lions flanker, now managing director] has only mentioned about 200 times his winning kick against Scotland many years ago. There's still a strong Welsh tradition here, but this is exciting for all the players who have worked their socks off to get to this point. Hopefully they'll embrace it and enjoy it."
London Welsh v Leicester Tigers is live on Sky Sports 2 today, kick-off 2pm
Surviving the drop
How has the promoted club fared in the last 10 seasons?
2002-03 N/A Rotherham had been denied promotion on entry criteria.
2003-04 Rotherham Relegated in their first season, have been in Championship ever since.
2004-05 Worcester Stayed up, finishing 9th, 8th, 11th and 10th until relegated in 2009-10.
2005-06 Bristol Stayed up, finishing 11th, 3rd and 9th until relegated in 2008-9; Championship ever since.
2006-07 Harlequins Stayed up, finishing 7th, 8th, 7th, then were champions last season.
2007-08 Leeds Relegated in first season back after going down in 2005-06.
2008-09 Northampton Stayed up, finishing 8th, 2nd, 4th and 4th.
2009-10 Leeds Stayed up, finishing 10th, but relegated again in 2010-11.
2010-11 Exeter Stayed up, finishing 8th in 2011 and 5th last season
2011-12 Worcester Stayed up after returned at first attempt, coming 10th.
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