The Rugby Football Union and its top professional clubs were contemplating the hazardous traverse of a legal minefield yesterday after informing London Welsh that they had failed to meet promotion criteria and would not be admitted to next season's Premiership, even if they succeed in beating Cornish Pirates in a two-leg Championship final that kicked off in Penzance last night. The Exiles, who had nominated the Kassam Stadium in Oxford as their home for 2012-13, spoke of their "grave disappointment" and hinted strongly at the possibility of court proceedings.
Armed with a board of directors chaired by Bleddyn Phillips, a senior partner at the international law firm Clifford Chance, and including big hitters from the corporate finance and investment banking worlds, the Richmond-based club are not short of heavy artillery. If they decide to contest the decision of RFU management board members, some of whom are far from convinced that the promotion criteria are fair and reasonable, they will prove formidable opponents.
As things stand, Newcastle will stay in the elite league, despite finishing bottom of the table earlier this month.
"The lifeline of... keeping top-class rugby in the region is unbelievable," said Duncan Edward, the Falcons' commercial director. The men running London Welsh reached for the same u-word, albeit for different reasons. As a club spokesman pointed out, facilities at the Kassam Stadium are "at least the equal of many other grounds already hosting Premiership rugby".
While the RFU said independent auditors had identified "various failures" in the London Welsh promotion proposal, the main stumbling block was the lack of primacy of tenure at the Kassam, home to Oxford United, who play in the fourth tier of English football. Welsh made the point that some existing Premiership teams are, and have been for many seasons, in the same boat – not least London Irish, who play at the Madejski Stadium in Reading and are at far greater risk from broadcasting schedules, especially now their landlords are back in the Premier League.
Twickenham staff confirmed yesterday that Irish, along with the likes of Saracens, were among a group of clubs granted "special dispensation" when the system of minimum criteria was first introduced. But while Saracens, who have shared Vicarage Road with Watford, will move to their own accommodation in Barnet within the next six months or so, Irish have negotiated a long-term extension of their tenancy at the Madejski. Quite how a high court judge might square this with the treatment of London Welsh is a very moot point indeed.
Welsh said yesterday's developments would "only serve to strengthen our resolve", adding that they would "explore all possible avenues off the pitch to ensure that if successful in winning the Championship, we will take our rightful place in the top flight of English rugby".
Meanwhile, Newcastle's Dean Richards, back in the game after a three-year suspension for a fake blood scam at Harlequins, continued to sign players, including the former Bath backs Andrew Higgins and Alex Crockett, both of whom were banned for drug-related offences in 2009.
Dowson to lead England against Barbarians
Phil Dowson, the hard-bitten Northampton loose forward who won his first caps in this year's Six Nations before losing his place to the Wales-based No 8 Ben Morgan, will lead England in the non-cap game with the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday. The regular captain, Chris Robshaw, is occupied with Premiership final commitments for Harlequins and the only other candidate was one of Dowson's clubmates, the hooker Dylan Hartley, who has not played since March because of suspension.
"We want Dylan to focus on his game without being saddled with captaincy issues," said the England forwards coach, Graham Rowntree. "Phil is an important member of our leadership group. Even when he lost his place in the starting line-up, he never stopped giving."
Geordan Murphy, the Leicester full-back who will captain the Midlanders in Saturday's showpiece club occasion, has called time on his 72-cap career with Ireland, after being overlooked for next month's Test series in New Zealand.