In an era where traditional powerhouses of Welsh rugby are struggling to cope amid financial turmoil, the story of London Welsh’s recovery from liquidation is heartening.
Welsh’s Director of Rugby is now former Ospreys prop Cai Griffiths, who went from top-flight rugby in Swansea to the ninth tier of the English game within a year.
Though he was used to the dizzy heights of European rugby and crunch derby games at the Liberty Stadium, it wasn’t all change for Griffiths, having spent a season at Welsh in 2013-14.
Griffiths’ time at the club in his first spell couldn’t have been more successful. Against the odds, Welsh won promotion back to the Premiership, toppling Bristol’s wealth and stars along the way.
“My favourite year of rugby was with London Welsh when we were in the Championship”, Griffiths says. “There were some really good guys. Deep down I wanted to stay but the offer wasn’t there.”
Griffiths’ admission that he wasn’t offered a suitable contract to stay at Welsh is a startling one, especially given the fact that 25 players joined in the summer that he left. The decision to bring in so many new recruits ended predictably badly, as Welsh’s relegation from the Premiership was confirmed by March, picking up only one point along the way.
At the time, Griffiths was sceptical of the recruitment: “The coach at the time must have missed a trick because we were so tight as a unit. With so many players coming in it takes time to gel as a team. Given how high octane the Premiership is, you don’t have time – going into the Premiership trying to build a team is one year too late.
“I truly believe that we would’ve survived that year if we hadn’t brought in so many stars. The team we had didn’t have any superstars. It was just a team that was willing to dog it out for each other.”
As we speak, the shiny reflection of a framed Barbarians jersey protrudes from behind Griffiths. It’s the match-worn shirt of John Dawes, captain of the Baa-Baas side who famously beat New Zealand in Cardiff in 1973.
Dawes was one of many famed Wales stars to pull on the red of London Welsh during the amateur era. Before professionalism, Old Deer Park was the home away from home for many Welshmen, including Mervyn Davies, JPR Williams and Gerald Davies. The move to Oxford to suit Premiership regulations in 2012 is seen by many as the start of the decline.
Where before Welsh had two playing sectors – professional and amateur – now only one exists, as they can’t afford to pay players having been financially ravaged by the business decisions made in their Premiership days.
Thus, Griffiths, as Welsh’s Director of Rugby, is responsible for rebuilding the values which made Welsh so prosperous in the amateur days: hard work, skill, unity.
Griffiths re-joined Welsh after their leader at the time, Sonny Parker, called upon his former team-mate to become a player-coach.
He was a coach in training that year, the former Ospreys prop having made the decision to switch from top-flight rugby in Swansea to Bury St. Edmonds, a side playing in National 2.
Now, over a year since joining Welsh, Griffiths’ side went 14 months unbeaten, only relinquishing their record in late October, having begun their progression up the leagues with promotion last season.
“It doesn’t matter what level you are, [going a year unbeaten] is a huge achievement for this group of players, to maintain those standards in some of the places that we play is very resilient.”
Though New Zealander Parker has now left to return to his homeland, Welsh’s development has continued, and they currently lie top of London 3 North West, but as Griffiths admits, coping with the loss of Parker wasn’t easy.
“It was pretty hard. When he returned to New Zealand I lost not only a friend, but a mentor as well. It was hard when I got that phone call, but I understand why he went back.
“You have to move on, and I’ve been lucky to have Tom [May] come on board. They’re two different types of coaches, but Sonny was a huge part of this club. He’d been here for years – he was a pro, went through liquidation and he was looking after the players when we started off here.”
Moving from top-flight rugby to the ninth tier is a curious move, especially as the majority of former players kickstart their coaching career in the professional game, but Griffiths doesn’t see it that way. “You go to that level and you understand that it’s not just your experience. Experience goes a fair way, but it’s an actual understanding of how to coach, how to give that skill to a certain player.
“I’m quite happy with where I am at the moment. I’m really enjoying it here. I’m enjoying my rugby for the first time in four, five years, and I’m loving being out there with the boys.”
Through professionalism and liquidation, there’s a genuine sense that Welsh lost their identity. For a club which can boast of so many former British and Irish Lions to be languishing in the lower divisions demonstrates something going severely wrong. When Griffiths came in, a key part of his philosophy was to restore the Welsh pride. After being prompted for the reasoning behind his move to Welsh, Griffiths looks pensive.
After a long pause, he says: “It’s a special place. It’s not like any other rugby club. You can go upstairs and see the Lions shirts – at one point this was the greatest rugby club in the World. It’s quite deep, and being a Welsh guy living in London, [the opportunity] to coach London Welsh is a very special thing for me.”
With Welsh making such good progress in their bid to achieve four promotions in five years (if successful, this would end with the club in tier five by 2022), it raises the question of whether they could end up back in the professional divisions, but there is the potential risk of further liquidation.
“There could be a point where we keep progressing up the divisions and have a decision to make about paying players. If it was up to me, we’d have to look at it.
“If that means we go to a league, decide not to pay players and we’re in that mid-table, it’s all about the future of the club. That’s the situation. We’re never, ever again putting this club where it was a couple of years ago. Never again.”