London Welsh . . . Still Progressing After 135 Years, Still Loved And Most Importantly, Still Here

London Welsh win line-out ball with the iconic Kew Gardens Pagoda in the background.. Pic: Owen Morgan.

London Welsh . . . Still Progressing After 135 Years, Still Loved And Most Importantly, Still Here

London Welsh have just secured promotion – again – their fourth in five years. It’s a story of determination, togetherness and honest self-appraisal finally overcoming the odds. Owen Morgan went to Old Deer Park and discovered a famous club re-born.

Dafydd Iwan’s Yma of Hyd could be clearly heard by visitors admiring the famous cherry blossoms and iconic Great Pagoda of London’s iconic Kew Gardens on Saturday afternoon.

The music was drifting on a light spring breeze from the neighbouring Old Deer Park rugby ground where the rousing Welsh lyrics were booming out over the public address system.

There was still more than an hour to go before London Welsh kicked-off their home match against Guildford, but the anticipation was growing.

The Exiles were pumping up a party atmosphere to celebrate the club’s fourth promotion in as many seasons, which had been clinched the previous Saturday with a win at Farnham.

There was a distinctly Welsh flavour to the festivities in this corner of west London which will be forever Wales.

During its 135-year history in the capital, the club has seen soaring highs and desperate lows.

The highs included a golden era in the 1960s and 1970s when they were one of the most successful club sides in Britain.

More recently, as a professional club, it enjoyed two seasons in the Premiership alongside the likes of Saracens, Harlequins and Wasps.

London Welsh on the attack in front of a big crowd at Old Deer Park against Guildford on Saturday.

But the lowest of the lows came in December 2016 when London Welsh’s professional team went into liquidation and was subsequently relegated to the ninth tier of English rugby after failing to satisfy the RFU criteria for Championship rugby.

Now, they are roaring back as a community club.

Having found themselves in the bottom tier of English rugby, playing the likes of Staines and Old Actonians, Welsh launched a five-year plan, dubbed Project Reset.

The objective was to gain four promotions in five years – lifting them from London SE Division Herts and Middlesex Division One all the way back up to the national leagues.

And that’s exactly what they achieved when they clinched promotion from London 1 South with three matches to spare with the 41-5 win at Farnham – the victory which set up last Saturday’s promotion party at Old Deer Park

One of the men who was part of those legendary London Welsh teams of the 1960s and 1970s was watching with delight from the stand as the club celebrated its rise to National League 3 next season.

John Taylor was one of the seven players London Welsh provided for the 1971 British and Irish Lions touring party which conquered New Zealand in their own back yard.

Now club president, Taylor says of the current team’s achievement in reaching the fifth tier of English rugby, “This is obviously a very big day for the club.

“It’s an incredible effort. I don’t think anyone realises quite how difficult it is – whatever level you’re at and where you’re coming from – to win four promotions on the trot is something very special.

“What has been wonderful is the way the club spirit has almost been re-grown. It’s a massive change from being a professional club to again being a community club.”

Centre Ewan Gully crosses for London Welsh but the score was ruled out for a forward pass.

Taylor, who himself played in the amateur era, sees parallels between the current first team and the one he represented, albeit at a far higher level.

London Welsh were six times Sunday Telegraph English champions, twice Sunday Telegraph English Welsh Champions,  Western Mail Welsh Champions for 1972-73 and Whitbread Welsh Merit Table Champions for  1971-72.

This is the club that, despite technically being English,  provided a huge chunk of the Welsh national team during the Golden Era of the Seventies.

But Taylor points out that like today’s players, he and his team mates back then held down full-time jobs and played and trained in their own spare time.

“In some ways, it’s almost like back in the day when we all came to London to work and improve ourselves – Welshmen with a bit of adventure who wanted to spend some time in London.

“And it’s a bit like that now. You know, the whole thing of London Welsh, Old Deer Park, being the sporting, cultural and social centre for the Welsh in London is right back there. That’s terrific.

“The guys who are coming in now are not looking for a professional rugby career, but they want to play good rugby and pursue their careers.

“You know, we were nearly all schoolteachers in my day . . . a couple of businessmen, a couple of medical students and the rest were teachers.”

With London Welsh’s choir appropriately singing Calon Lan over the tannoy in the background, Taylor also welcomed the club’s return to its strong Welsh roots which had been somewhat diluted during its two seasons in the Premiership in 2012-13 and 2014-15.


“That has been wonderful,” adds Taylor, who went on to become one of the game’s most respected journalists and broadcasters after his playing days.

“There’s almost been a re-growth of that Welshness. You’ve only got to see the reaction to the choir singing at the lunches and things like that. It’s brilliant.

“The only problem when we were a pro club, with things as they were in the RFU, if you wanted to be in the Premiership or the Championship, you had to have 16 players who were England-qualified on every match day 23.

“And that made London Welsh first team not very Welsh. So, it was difficult.”

The spells in the Premiership also took the first team away from Old Deer Park with the club playing its matches in Oxford at the Kassam Stadium, which boasted a larger capacity .

Now, though, the whole atmosphere around the club on Saturday couldn’t be much more Welsh with the club long settled back at its spiritual home.

From the choir entertaining those enjoying the pre-match lunch in the packed clubhouse’s function room with Welsh favourites like Myfanwy, to the half-time raffle first prize of a signed Phil Bennett Wales jersey.

Even the charity bucket collection was for the Ty Hafan Children’s Hospice in Penarth.

You could have been standing on the touchline at any rugby club in Wales, apart from the occasional heavily accented cry of “C’mon Welsh!”, the regular red London double decker buses passing on the adjacent Kew Road and the native green parakeets vying for airspace with the Heathrow jumbos overhead.

A crowd of around 900 turned out at Old Deer Park on Saturday to celebrate thei club’s fourth promotion in a row.

Jonathan Shankland, the club’s head of men’s rugby, is equally proud of the club’s continued strong Welsh ethos, despite being situated just a few miles from central London.

“The first XV squad is 60 to 70 per cent Welsh,” says Shankland.

“As you can see today from the lunch and from the atmosphere in the club, if there’s not a Welsh origin connection then you’re married to a Welsh person, or you went to university in Wales, or there’s some other link. There’s a huge connection to our roots.

“But that said, it is a very welcoming club and we’ve six nationalities that have played first team rugby here this year. We’ve got even more who’ve represented the club as a whole.

“So, it’s an inclusive club. You know, it’s always been a Welsh club, playing in the English leagues but welcoming to all.”

Shankland has seen all the recent highs and lows with London Welsh, joining as a player in 2011, and taking on a director’s role in 2017 when the club restructured.

From an entirely different generation to the likes of Taylor, he is no less passionate about the club’s history and its future.

Commenting on the success of the five-year plan, Shankland adds:  “If you said to us four years ago, or five years with Covid, that we’d have been here now, from where we were in Level Nine, having been demoted from the championship, we would have bitten your hand off.

“The club was in a really difficult spot and we threw everything behind it just to stay alive.

“Then you see what we’ve got today, a crowd of nearly 900 people, a hell of an atmosphere, a very strong club and back to our roots.”

London Welsh, Wales and Lions legend John Taylor watches on from the stands at Old Deer Park on Saturday.

The only fly in the ointment on Saturday was that Guildford decided to play the role of party poopers.

Despite dominating the match, particularly in the first half, Welsh slipped to a 26-28 defeat.

Shankland says the loss, which saw the home side miss a last minute penalty opportunity to win the match, is an insight into what they will face in National League 3 next season.

“Guildford are a decent side and they came down from the division above us,” adds Shankland.

“I think we just got a bit complacent. You saw the game, we’ve dominated most of it and should have probably put it out of sight before half time.

“But we didn’t and that’s the reality. We didn’t do it and we lost.

“Everywhere we go, it’s like a cup final for everyone we play, it’s massive for everybody that comes here because of the history of the club.

“You will have days like this where you lose. It’s not ideal, but we’re still rebuilding. And the main thing is, it’s another promotion.

“We set a target of four promotions in five seasons and we’ve done it in four straight seasons, so you can’t really argue with it.”


With the five-year plan now successfully completed under a coaching set-up led by former Ospreys prop Cai Griffiths, is there a new plan for the next five years?

“There is a plan, but the plan is not to have another plan, if that makes sense,” says Shankland.

“We’re not trying to do what we have done previously, and get promoted just for the sake of it without any structural stability.

“What we’re looking to do is it just consolidate on what we’ve already done, which is go back to the roots of the club, strong roots, strong connections with our feeder universities, feeder clubs in Wales, and our local institutions in London and the south east and see how it goes.

“As a board, we’ve set a very general target of wanting to get back to National One. But no timescale. No rush and no pressure. Particularly the way rugby is at the moment.

“The championship is a very difficult league in the sense of stability and where it’s going. So, I’d certainly say that’s not our target at the moment.

“But National One’s a nice league, very competitive with some good old traditional sides that fit very closely with the kind of club that we are. So that’s our longer term goal, but no timescales.”

Lessons have been learnt from what happened in the wake of their rise to the Premiership, but there is still something of a legacy left over from those troubled times.

“The club is very much the same club,” says Shankland. “But the difficulty we have is everywhere we go, people assume that we’re paying players huge amounts of money, that there is a lot of money behind London Welsh, that there is a massive push to get back to the Premiership or Championship.


“But it’s just not the case. We haven’t paid any players since 2017 – since Project Reset. We don’t pay our players. We have a huge club that people want to come and play for because it’s London Welsh.

“And we have a fantastic careers hub which helps people coming to London into employment and into the city. We have a huge community around the club.

“Our challenge now that we’ve come up through the leagues, where the games are getting more difficult, sides are stronger and we are not winning every game, is going back to hard, normal rugby and how we push on from that.

“We’ve got incredible links with the Welsh universities, particularly with Swansea University and Cardiff Met who are playing in the BUCS Premier, which is a fantastic level. Our careers hub is pumping those players through from university into London, into London Welsh.

“We’ve got a professional standard set-up here. The coaching team is second to none, the infrastructure and facilities that we’ve got are outstanding. It’s a Championship level club.

“We’re trying to do it the right way if you like. We’re not throwing money at it for the sake of it, we’re trying to rebuild on the club that has been here for 135 years. The real strength of the club is its community, its history and its people.”

Scrum-half James Smith crosses for London Welsh’s second try on Saturday.

The club appears to be thriving at every level. Earlier on Saturday, its men’s second string – The Druids – won the Middlesex Merit Premier League.

The club also has a successful women’s section and the age grade sections are booming.

The future certainly looks bright despite the ups and downs of the past decade.

Shankland says: “From under sixes up to under 18s, we have about 1,000 in the membership. About 600 of those are minis and that’s a huge part of the club. It’s the main part, it’s the ballast of the club, really.

“And that’s always been there. It was just a bit distinct from the pro set up when we were professional.

“You look at lots of clubs now, even this season, that have gone to the wall. Old Elthamians, who were in National One, have gone to the wall and they just folded.

“When what happened to us – the ejection from the championship and insolvency – it was difficult but there was never any danger of this club not being here. It’s such a massive club.

“On day two, after day one of the administration, not much changed at the club in that you still had a massive junior section, a massive youth, and all of the community behind it.

“As we’ve said before, we haven’t felt sorry for ourselves, we just got on with it. And that’s where we are now, four promotions on.”


The vast majority of visitors enjoying the spring flowers at Kew Gardens on Saturday afternoon may not have been able to understand the lyrics of Yma o Hyd (Still Here) as they drifted over from Old Deer Park.

But the significance and sentiment of those lyrics, adopted by so many Welsh sports teams in recent times, will not have been lost on those who do understand them.

And there can’t be many clubs for whom those lyrics are more appropriate than London Welsh, who are very much still here.



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