December 7th, 2016 is a date forever etched into the history of London Welsh. Five years ago, the former Premiership side was forced into liquidation due to an unsustainable financial position.
The professional era at Old Deer Park was over, and the Exiles were ousted from their place in the Championship, and forced to start over as an amateur side. The Dragons undoubtedly fell into the fire, but they have since risen like a phoenix from the ashes. The club is now thriving, and fighting its way back up the leagues.
The side which once boasted seven British and Irish Lions for the 1971 New Zealand tour, as well as Rugby World Cup winning All Black Piri Weepu, had to start over from scratch. London Welsh found themselves relegated to the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Division 1, in the ninth tier of English rugby.
London Welsh’s management team acted immediately, introducing ‘Project Re-set’ at the turn of the new year. The club promptly appointed former Osprey’s prop Cai Griffiths in a player-coach role, to steer the Exiles in the right direction.
Between his two spells with the Swansea side, Griffiths also enjoyed a season playing for London Welsh in 2013/14, and now as the Director of Rugby, he discussed how the club is hitting the targets they put in place.
He said: “So, 2016/2017 Project Reset. The challenge was for four promotions in five years. And yeah, we’re on track. So, we’re on track for a fourth promotion now. Obviously, last year didn’t work out, it’s because of Covid. So hopefully, we’ll have another promotion.”
“Yes, the club has a lot of history attached to it, and you want to be part of that as well. I think, with the history of it, and the big names that has played for it, it’s an honour to be part of it. So again, we’ll hopefully have success this season, and re-evaluate what we want to do in the next two to four years.”
Half a decade on from liquidation, and London Welsh are playing in the London South 1 division. Outside centre Rhys Howells arrived at the club in 2016, and has stuck with the Dragons in their fight back up the leagues.
“I’ve seen a lot of change over the years. Basically, each year, it attracts new boys, and as we go up the leagues, there’s bigger and better competition,” Howells said.
“It’s been pretty awesome to be part of the club. You know, such a historic place. It’s just cool to be part of getting them back up to the leagues that they need to be in.”
Griffiths praised Howells, and second rower Tom Baldwin, for their longevity with Welsh. Yet with consecutive promotions, more players are attracted to Old Deer Park year after year. Griffiths discussed how securing signatures has been beneficial, in their toughest season since re-setting.
“People know that we’re still here, which is fantastic. I think that’s a knock-on effect of where we are, and the success that we’ve had. So yeah, very happy, but again, this season’s going to be a challenging season.”
“I think it’s the hardest season, but we knew that going into it. Recruitment has gone well, so we’re in a good place. I think overall, our retention in the players itself is quite high. I don’t think we’ve lost a player to another club.”
Welsh are certainly in a healthier place than five years ago. They now have three senior teams, a veteran’s side and stronger foundations in their women’s team. Back rower Paula Cooper has been playing for the women’s side since 2003, and believes that what the club went through, has brought everyone closer together.
“It’s been a really good journey.” Cooper said. “I’m pretty sure you’ll find some of the other supporters say that; ‘Actually, you know what, it wasn’t a bad thing.’ It’s brought us together as a community club again, and for me, that’s just been brilliant.”
“Building that community sense, has been the best thing that’s happened to us, and just you know, getting everybody together. Enjoying our rugby as that one big family again.”
With 10 wins in 10 games, Welsh are eyeing up another promotion, and continue to build towards a stronger future. “We’ve sat down as a collective in the club, and say it has to be sustainable. That’s the biggest thing, sustainability and the health of the club” Griffiths added. “We want to be here for the next 100 years, and I think this reset here, is a foundation block to go forward.”