April 18, 2012
Exeter have defied the odds to reach the Premiership and now qualify for the Heineken Cup © Getty Images
April in Northern Hemisphere rugby means the focus switches back to the clubs. The final jockeying for places in the Aviva Premiership play-offs and the final stages of this year's Heineken Cup and qualification for next year makes it a hugely exciting and vitally important few weeks.
European rugby changes the financial equation and those clubs on the fringes will be waiting anxiously before they can begin to prepare for next season. Drop down a level to the poor relations of English professional rugby in the Championship and it is every bit as tense. All the clubs at the top end dream of 'doing an Exeter' and escaping the confines of a league that is hugely competitive but has still to make the breakthrough in terms of generating revenue.
Money is so tight clubs could not survive without the goodwill of benefactors - you cannot really describe them as investors because there is little chance of them ever seeing a return - but Exeter's success offers them hope. Not only did they win promotion, they survived their first season against most people's expectations and now they have kicked on and have now qualified for Europe. After just two seasons that is a stupendous achievement and an inspiration to every Championship Club.
My world as part-time managing director at London Welsh feels a solar system away from the Premiership but we beat Exeter twice in the season they were promoted so we know it is not just a dream and these are exciting times as we head for the knock-out stage of our own play-offs. The Premiership is on the horizon even if that keeps shifting.
For those who still find the Championship format impenetrable - a quick guide. The 12 clubs played each other home and away and the top eight were then divided into two play-off pools. The four clubs in each pool play each other home and away again - the final fixtures are this coming weekend. In Pool A, Bristol defeated London Welsh last week to make virtually sure of finishing top but the Exiles took an invaluable losing bonus point to ensure they too have qualified for the next stage - the knock-out semi-finals.
At the beginning of May the winners of each pool play the runners-up in the other pool home and away. The aggregate winners then go through to the final and play again home and away (if Bristol and London Welsh were to overcome the challenge of Bedford and Cornish Pirates who are guaranteed the top two places in Pool B we would have played each other six times this season). The final winners are then promoted if, and it is a fairly big 'if' in our case, we fulfil the minimum criteria for playing in the Premiership.
Old Deer Park, our home since 1957, regularly if uncomfortably accommodated 5000 plus crowds back in the 70s when London Welsh were one of the top five clubs in England but now it is, rightly, considered woefully inadequate.
To make matters worse we share the ground with Richmond Cricket Club and handed over tenure last weekend so we may not even be able to play our home leg of the semi-final at home. Negotiations are underway.
If we progress we certainly cannot play our home leg of the final there because television schedules decree it must be played under lights we do not have. Alternatives are being explored.
We therefore need a new home if we win the Championship. In the long term there are two options for completely new stadiums but whilst they are being developed we have no option but to ground-share as do London Irish, Wasps, Saracens and Sale in the Premiership. But it is not that simple - they have longstanding exemptions from the primacy of tenure regulations - we have to convince the RFU and Premiership Rugby that it is in their best interests to allow us to join them.
Bristol and Leeds (who are not in contention) are currently the only sides in the Championship who satisfy the criteria. Even if we were to overcome all the obstacles the odds are still stacked against a newly promoted club.
A Premiership Club has a total wage bill of between £3.5m and £4.5m for players as against approximately £1m at the top end of the Championship so the difference is enormous. A newly promoted club will get approximately £1.5m from core funding - as opposed to £300,000 in the Championship - but that still leaves a huge gap.
The timetable is also against the newcomer. To put a squad together that could compete in the top division before being certain of promotion would be financial suicide but the Championship is not decided until the end of May which leaves no time at all quite apart from the fact that all the players on any wish list will be, by definition, already contracted.
So, a few minor problems to sort out - ground, players, money - but the dream is very much alive!
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh
"The thirst for knowledge has seen coaches break away from the confines of rugby and look to America." Tom Hamilton on the two-way learning process
On Saturday, New Zealand face the USA in a match that has been 40 years in the making. Tom Hamilton finds the atmosphere building in Chicago
Most modern rugby players will not know the name Ray Williams but they should be eternally grateful to him, writes John Taylor
With the All Blacks playing the USA Eagles this weekend, Craig Dowd says rugby is ready to make a professional breakthrough Stateside