Selling out or sold out?
May 30, 2012
London Welsh celebrate claiming the RFU Championship title - but will it lead to their promotion to the Premiership? © Getty Images
You know how it is when you move house. You're never quite sure where everything is and before you know it there are people knocking on the front door wanting to have a good nose around.
Such was the mood as London Welsh rolled out the welcome mat at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford for their Championship final second leg clash with Cornish Pirates. The usual home of Oxford United FC is their chosen home should they successfully appeal a decision to block their ascent to the top flight and their performance both on and off the field signalled that this club is ready to lay claim to Premiership status.
Given the Championship title was within their side's grasp, the mood among London Welsh's fans was not exactly celebratory early in the evening - far from it. "I think they will lose more than they gain," commented one almost dejected fan when asked whether the switch from their Old Deer Park home would be embraced by fans new and old. He could just have easily been talking about the club itself as it stands on the brink of a move that others view with disdain.
"They are gambling with the club's heritage," insisted one die-hard fan who, although impressed by the surroundings of what is incredibly the Exiles' 29th 'home' ground in their 127 year history, insists he will not be making the regular trip to Oxford should the club get their way ahead of the new season. A little concerned their opinion on the proposed move has not been sought by those championing the bold switch, they except the commercial factors are a "sign of the times"
"They have a loyal hard-core following at Old Deer Park but I don't anticipate many following the club here," offered another fan, seemingly resigned to having to find something different to do on Saturday afternoons next season. "London Welsh is very much a community club, and this isn't our community."
The decision to block London Welsh's promotion largely on the basis that they do not fulfil the 'primacy of tenure' requirement within the all-important 'minimum standards criteria' unsurprisingly does not sit with fans - even if they do not want to see their club re-locate. They, like the club itself and the media, remain in the dark as to the exact detail of the ruling.
Left to make their own assumptions, they take their lead from the press who have been quick to point to an apparent double standard with the likes of London Irish, London Wasps, Saracens and Sale all co-habiting with football clubs. That growing discontent and ill-feeling towards the RFU is yet another PR disaster of their own making.
Despite the apparent gloom from some fans at the prospect of 'losing' their club, others hint at the excitement that London Welsh will hope fuels an exciting new era for the club. "We've come down from south Wales especially for the game," said one fan became hooked on the Exiles while living in Guildford before re-locating back to his roots. "This place may be a little easier for fans from our way to come to games but I don't know how many are likely to do that."
The proximity of Irish, who play at Reading FC's Madejski Stadium, and Wasps, whose current home is Wycombe Wanderers's Adams Park Stadium, will make the job of marketing the club in this catchment area all the more difficult. But in the Kassam Stadium itself they have a stadium and location with what appears to be plenty of potential in terms of the match day experience.
On my travels I am yet to encounter another Premiership venue where my car can be cleaned during the game - and where I can keep an eye on said vehicle throughout thanks to the three-sided nature of the stadium. In addition, there is a cinema is no-more than a couple of miss-passes away should you want to pass up an uninspiring Premiership encounter for some action of the Hollywood variety.
And while the cost of a pint - £3.80 - may be some way in excess of what the Exiles' fans are used to paying at Old Deer Park, you can bet that in the convivial surrounds of their own club bar they are not treated to sacks of candy floss. But in all seriousness, this ground and club appear fit and ready for Premiership rugby.
The Pirates' amazing travelling support - that made up an estimated third of the 3,000 crowd - contributed immensely to an enjoyable atmosphere and once again and if the Exiles' fans boast half as much enthusiasm for following their side then the turnstiles will be kept sufficiently busy here next season.
The game lived up to the occasion and the Pirates threatened to spoil the party only for London Welsh to wrestle back control of the game much to the delight of the 'home' side's fans who didn't care how far they had come when the final whistle confirmed their team as champions.
The melancholy that appeared to engulf many before kick-off was superseded by delight that was punctuated by boos at every mention of the RFU dignitaries present to award the silverware. "Would you like the Kassam Stadium to be your home next season?" bellowed the PA announcer to be met with a roar of approval. Sensing he was onto something he continued: "Do you want to watch Premiership rugby at the Kassam Stadium next season?" This time the answer was even more emphatic.
Only time will tell if the RFU suits were listening and whether the Exiles' jubilation lasts until the dawn of the new Premiership season and a house-warming party to remember.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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