Just four games into the London Welsh revival, they lose 17-7 to UCS Old Boys on a ‘small, slanting, pitch’. It’s not in the script. Coach Cai Griffiths is philosophical about defeat: “I wanted to rip people’s faces off.” The journey back is going to be a long one.
The clubhouse of Saracens Amateurs on Bramley Road in Southgate retains every ounce of the misty-eyed nostalgia that any dyed-in-the-wool rugby fan could want. There are walls lined with shields from every club you could name, and many more you can’t. There are faded photographs of bygone teams, sides littered with internationals. And there are trophies, signed shirts and all the usual trinkets you’d expect in a clubhouse that was once the home of Europe’s premier rugby club. It wasn’t all in the dim and distant past either – it was here that rugby idols Buck Shelford and Francois Pienaar would drill star-studded squadrons of Saracen soldiers, readying them for battle on the rugby field. The pitch out front has been studded by the boots of many a famous player. Philippe Sella, Michael Lynagh, Richard Hill, Thomas Castaignede – if that doesn’t make a turf ‘hallowed’, then we need to redefine the word’s meaning.
There’s also the portakabin changing room ‘extension’, put in place some 40 years or so ago as a temporary measure and never quite replaced with a bricks and mortar version. But it will suffice, not least because the main first XV these days resides in Herts/Middlesex 1, rugby’s ninth tier. They’re title contenders though, with four wins out of five – an identical record to their opponents today. We are, of course, talking about another club with a famous name – although in this case there’s no ‘amateur’ suffix, it’s just plain old London Welsh. The one and only.
Although the two sides share the same win/loss record, they’re separated on points, a muddled first and surname on the league report card has seen Saracens docked five points, so they sit below London Welsh rather than above them. “The league rules are brutal,” admits an understanding visiting coach, Cai Griffiths, “If you write down the name Dave and his full name is David then you’re stuffed.”
Cai has arrived a good three hours before kick-off, partly to meet us, but also to ensure he actually gets to Bramley Road in time. Driving in London does that to you. He’s more worried about his own players though, away days haven’t been good ones so far for his new charges. “It can be a bit disjointed for away games,” he admits, “Players are arriving by bus, train, tube, car, cycling, walking… … a delay on the Victoria line and you can lose a couple of players before kick-off.”
That’s happened already. Not quite kick-off, but after a series of last-minute dropouts, Cai’s director of rugby was forced to call upon an old mate to put on his boots. Luckily that ‘old mate’ was Tom May, the ex-England international with some 400 or so professional games to his name. “We played with him when he was at London Welsh, Sonny just texted him to see if he fancied a game,” explains Cai. “He’s a fit guy and in shape considering he’s about 40, but he loved it and said he’d play for us if we ever needed him – as long as we were at home that is.”
Was he a target? “They were giving him banter, but he’s got shit chat so wasn’t able to give it back. If you’re a name, I guess they would try and put one on you wouldn’t they? Luckily I’m not a name, so it’s alright.”
Cai might not be the household name, but he’s done his stint at the top. Over a decade with the Ospreys, a Grand Slam winner with Wales at U21 level, a victory over a touring Wallabies side and now aiming for his first league title as a coach. Having decided to call it quits in the professional game last season, Cai was – and still is – working for a training firm when he got the call from his old team-mate Sonny, back in April. “He just said ‘listen there’s an opportunity, we’re starting from scratch, do you want to come on the journey?’ And I said, yes, definitely, it’s London Welsh at the end of the day isn’t it? I didn’t know what the standard was, I didn’t know if they could catch and pass. I went in blind."
Kick-off is two hours away. Director of rugby, Sonny, has arrived and there are concerns about nerves. Not obvious ones and not even his, but – conscious of his side’s away form – he’s asked us not to take pictures too close to the kick-off in the changing rooms, he needs his players focused. The pre-match set-up is the same as any club the world over, but perhaps for level nine, things are bit more organised. Something you probably expect given the presence of three former professionals in the coaching team (the third is strength and conditioning coach Will Taylor, once of Wasps, Scarlets and Ospreys).
Considering its age, the portakabin is wearing well for a changing room. It’s actually pretty roomy too. Shirts are hung in position order with socks perched on the peg and shorts in a pile ready for the familiar scramble for the right size. One player, we guess a scrum-half, seems particularly pleased to have grabbed the only size 32s – an early win for him then.
There’s a good stash of wine gums, jelly beans and biltong and Sonny is carefully choosing the changing room music to ‘set the mood’.
He’s all about the detail, but then he has to be having set a target of four promotions in five seasons. “We don’t make any bones about it,” begins Cai, now chatting to us back in the clubhouse. Before he can continue, fans, mostly London Welsh, begin to drift in, including his mum. ‘Hi mum’, he says, stopping his flow, before adding: ‘I’m doing an interview’.
Ma Griffiths is wearing a London Welsh shirt, clearly one of the hardcore. “She’s been based in London for work for a few years now,” explains Cai. “She’d always come to Swansea to watch the games, so now that I’m in London it’s become a lot easier.”
Back to things that they don’t ‘make any bones about’, Cai resumes: “We are looking to get promotion, we’ve said it from the get-go. It’s not being arrogant, we have to talk about promotion. We’re looking to go back-to-back, or four out of five because we don’t live in a perfect world.”
The same can be said about that first defeat a week or two before, coming possibly a season earlier before either coach expected it to. “That pitch was tiny, it was a disgrace, I genuinely don’t think it was regulation, but we can’t blame it on the field,” says Cai. “We were off and they dealt with it better. We decided not to play ourselves and we perhaps lost a bit of leadership, the side went into its shell and started panicking a bit.”
“Being honest, I did want to rip people’s faces off, that’s how I felt,” he laughs. “Although I’m never really happy – we won by 50 points the other week and I was still raging about things that went wrong.”
Perhaps wanting to help ensure his side don’t lack for leadership this week, Cai has put himself in the side today, with Sonny in the squad, too, for good measure. “I’m playing second row,” says the former prop. “We’ve got two really good props and there’s no need for me to be there – they’re probably better than me anyway. Sonny’s on the bench because he feels the same, he believes in the centres we’ve got. He’s there if we need him though.”
As kick-off approaches, he leaves us for the portakabin. More and more London Welsh shirts arrive, including stalwart fans Owain and Steve, regulars from the non-professional days of rugby through to the Premiership and all the way back down again. “We got what we deserved,” says Steve, who perhaps deserves a view given that he travelled from his then home in Germany to Oxford during the club’s heady days in the top flight. “We were right the first time to challenge. I have no problem with health and safety, but a 10,000-seater stadium when you don’t have that many fans is just stupid, but the second promotion, that was the one that did us.”
“If that Saracens game had gone differently in the first season things could’ve been different,” adds Owain, referring to his side’s 23-28 defeat in 2012 when a poor refereeing decision denied them a last-gasp win.
The ins and outs of London Welsh woes have been pored over time and again, but Steve reckons he spotted a sign of something amiss far earlier than most. “It was when the friend of a certain gentleman went to the bar for a round – a glass of white wine and a beer it was – and he went to pay with a credit card – a credit card! For two drinks! I just thought ‘what’s going on here then’.”
“There was always talk of finance, but nothing ever seemed to appear,” adds Owain. “I think it was when we were asked to help give the players some money for Christmas that we knew something was really going to happen,” continues Steve.
“You say that,” cuts in Owain, “but I went along to a Druids game [Druids being the amateur side now merged into London Welsh] in January and spoke to the management at the club and they were totally convinced that in a couple of days the RFU would give them a license until the end of season. It never happened.
“Our next away game was going to be at Jersey and they’d have had a full clubhouse – it was unfair on other clubs because they had no income.”
“That’s the bit I’m bitter about,” agrees Steve. “All those teams never got to play the games. They should’ve let us play the games, and even if we’d finished mid-table we could still have got dropped down and that would’ve been fair enough, but to yank us out and cost those clubs money made no sense. Jersey had already been struggling financially…”
What of the last game? “They actually thrashed London Scottish in our last home game and there was a really big crowd there.”
Did it feel like a wake? “No, not really. Oh hello Colin.”
“Hello young man, how are you?” responds Colin.
“He was my PE teacher and one of the best players this club ever had,” says Owain by way of introduction.
Dressed in a flat cap, suit, shirt and tie, Colin is every inch the clubman. “I’ve been watching them for 63 years,” he explains, easily topping Owain’s paltry 60-year stint. “I came up in 1954, played at Cardiff and then came here to teach. I didn’t play that much though as I was always injured. I’m 87 now.”
Colin warms to our conversation quickly, especially when talk turns to the club’s decision to move to Oxford. “Apparently,” begins Colin, “there was a large contingent of Welsh people in the southern counties who would come there in tens of thousands to fill the stadium. I said at the time there were hundreds of thousands of Welsh people in Kent, Essex, Sussex, but they won’t even come to Old Deer Park, so they certainly won’t come to Oxford, but there you are, they did move, and here we are now."
Kick-off. Colin, Owain and Steve find seats in the concrete stand. On the pitch, Cai, Sonny and Will had kept pre-match warm-up succinct. “Twenty-three minutes warm-up and that’s it,” Cai tells me later. There’s no wasted energy, no endless lineouts or scrums or the usual winding up, winding down, then winding up again in an attempt to find the perfect preparation.
It seems to have worked, as London Welsh are quick out of the box and soon closing in on the home side’s try line. Cai is at the back of a maul, holding it all together, edging it ever closer. Close enough, he flops over, 5-0, converted, 7-0, only seven minutes on the clock.
“Boring! Where’s the attacking rugby?” laughs one London Welsh fan, part of a sizeable contingent helping to half-fill Saracens’ stand. Another try, 12-0, 13 minutes gone. “Keep that No.3 running,” shouts another in an affectionate nod to a much-loved prop. Welsh touch down again. 17-0, 17 minutes gone, it’s a point a minute. A pushover try in the 24th minute takes them to 22-0 and it’s looking comfortable. “Nice legs, ref,” the stand catcalls at a ref not used to such compliments.
It may be comfortable, but Sonny looks focused – no hint of a smile. Unusual for level nine, the coaches are mic’d up, and Sonny takes every opportunity to get water on – there’s no need for players to scream at a bored substitute to chuck a bottle on here. Will is, likewise, not taking his eye off the action in case he spots a crease in the field in need of ironing out.
Club captain Courtney is on the bench today, but is happy to chat – rugby-wise, he admits he’s never had it so good. “There’s strength and conditioning, nutritional advice, time-keeping when you’re warming up – everything is scheduled and regimented, it’s just brilliant,” he admits. “We’re lads who played Herts/Middlesex 1 social rugby and we’re now coached by Welsh internationals and they’re all mic’d up telling us what to do – it’s a bit overwhelming really.”
Today, the ‘overwhelmed’ ones are the opponents. As the clock ticks on, so do the points. Saracens Amateurs aren’t a bad side, indeed when a young back gets a break they look dangerous, but the London Welsh forwards have strangled the life out of them. So much so, that in the second-half they give a run out to an old boy, namely 40-year-old Sonny. He arrives just in time to benefit from quick ball through the hands of those trusted young midfielders to score a simple try in the corner and finish off a satisfying 49-11 win. “We got two on them last year and you’ve seen the turnaround this year, they’ve come on a lot, they had a really good front five,” says Saracens captain Andrew Bullmore, after the game. “I noticed an increase in professionalism, when I got here the cones were already laid out – not something we’ve seen from them before.”
With Sonny relaxing his ruling on photography, our man follows the players to get a few of those moody reportage behind-the-scenes shots. He’s back two minutes later, explaining: ‘Yeah it was a little bit awkward, the one in the baseball cap called me a cockwatcher’.
Not overly familiar with the faces of rugby, he’s referring to Sonny, who then emerges from the changing rooms. “I ripped into you didn’t I?” he says, laughing at our red-faced photographer.
Like Cai, Sonny feels completely at home in his current surroundings. “It doesn’t matter where you play, it’s still the same size pitch, two sets of posts and a rugby ball,” he says. “It’s no different here to anywhere and the drive is always the same whatever level, both here and international. I’m competitive no matter what I’m doing. If I’m running to the other side of park with the missus I still want to beat her. When I have kids, there’s no way I’ll never let my son or daughter win anything.”
Sonny has London Welsh closer to his heart than many. Since joining Ospreys in 2012, he’s gone from player to backs coach to team manager, and is now director of rugby. He’s been through the good times of promotion and the bad times. Really bad times. “The hardest thing was for the guys with families, they’ve got kids to worry about,” he says of the liquidation last year. “We had 40-odd players and other staff and I was worried about what happened to them, it was hard. It was hard for my girlfriend because she could see how badly it was affecting me, but that was my job. What made matters worse was hearing about it on social media, we first got wind of it all through Twitter.”
He’s not dwelling on the past. It’s only through prompting that last season even gets mentioned. His focus is on the job in hand – the mission statement of four promotions in five years is echoed here too – and ensuring history doesn’t repeat itself. “I went through this with Celtic Warriors as a player, losing my job, and then again with London Welsh as a manager – so I’ve seen it from two sides and it’s not pretty. I don’t want it to happen again and, as director of rugby, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t.
“I can’t see the club going down that route ever again anyway. The club is sustainable for the people that love the club. It’s professional but with no single person controlling everything.”
Purely amateur in status, in neighbours London Scottish and Richmond, London Welsh don’t have far too look for inspiration about the journey ahead. It’s a path trodden before, in fact, back in 2002, Richmond won the very league that London Welsh and Saracens Amateurs are now contesting. Looking at the set-up already in place, it’s all too easy for those passionate London Welsh fans to start thinking the same is going to happen to them. But, for now, their director of rugby Sonny is off to the club to pay the fines about to be dished out. “Yeah that was my first game and try, so I think there could be a few pints waiting for me tonight.”
Words by Alex Mead. Pictures by Han Lee De Boer