'We're here to compete, not to make up the numbers'
July 7, 2014
London Welsh's Matt Corker and Justin Burnell alongside the Premiership trophy © Getty Images
As we stood talking to London Welsh's head coach Justin Burnell during the unveiling of the fixtures for the 2014-15 Aviva Premiership season, his captain Matt Corker was stood taking photos of the panoramic views from the top of the BT Tower. It was difficult not to in all honesty, such was the vast sprawling landscape of London sloping away underneath you, but the over-riding message from London Welsh ahead of their return to the top flight is that they are not here as tourists, they are not here to make up the numbers.
"I hate this talk of survival, we are going there to compete," Burnell said. "It's difficult, of course it is, but the biggest thing that comes out of London Welsh is that it is pointless moaning, you can't do anything about it, you just have to get on with it. That's our mindset, that's always been our focus. That's where we are, it's difficult, but that's tough.
"All I say at London Welsh is that if we get beaten by a better side, with better players, that's life. That's what it's about. I believe in that and we believed in that last year."
This is a vastly different London Welsh side to the one that competed two seasons ago at England's top table but there are similarities in the situation they have found themselves in. Prior to their RFU Championship play-off final against Bristol, it was their opponents who were making the big noise with their high-profile recruits. You sensed Bristol already had one eye on the top flight. London Welsh had such inevitable dreams of grandeur and bouncing back at the first asking following their 2012-13 relegation, but they were focused on the present and while that does help you achieve short-term goals, they now find themselves in the Premiership and their entire mindset must shift.
"A lot of our recruitment when we signed players was based on the Championship and all of a sudden, I'm pretty open about this, you then go up to the Aviva Premiership and the standard and calibre improves," Burnell said. "We are in four competitions so there are now issues with anything we have done, we are going to have to work on the basis of two squads - a Premiership squad and one in the A-League.
"The further signings [Burnell hopes to make five more] we are making will be in the Premiership group as such. Our focus in the Championship was to get into the top four and then when that top four came around it was anybody's to go for. At that stage we went up another level and we reaped the rewards. There's then another recruitment drive after June 4."
Burnell has already bolstered his squad with experienced heads Dean Schofield, Olly Barkley and Tim Molenaar and he has been hugely impressed with the trio's attitude. Schofield's wedding took place last Friday but rather than take a week off to prepare and arrive late for pre-season training, the veteran lock was in on Monday but did take the Thursday off. For Burnell, they are the perfect example of the values he wants to instill into his club.
"It is a good place to be, we're very proud of our environment, you have to fit in to London Welsh and we don't have to fit in around you."
While there are plenty of things within Burnell's control, though admittedly he would have wanted a bit longer than since June 4 to prepare for life in the Premiership, if there's one thing that London Welsh learnt from their last trip to the top flight was that it is of equal importance to get off-field matters sorted as the team's performance.
Olly Barkley is back in the Premiership with London Welsh © Getty Images
The Tyson Keats affair - where the Kiwi scrum-half was incorrectly registered and with false documents - saw the club docked five points and suffer a fine. It was a points deduction that eventually saw them relegated back to the Championship. The scar of the whole incident is still worn by the club, but Burnell, who joined London Welsh the season after they were relegated, is looking to learn from those who were there at the time.
"It always goes cloudy when the discussion comes on the last time they were in the Premiership but that was two years ago and a lot has gone in that time. London Welsh have learned a lot from their previous time in the Premiership. There are a lot of good people who were part of that, like our director of rugby, our chairman and they are great people.
"They have learnt so much from that and that enabled myself to really get that knowledge out of them. I was at Cardiff Blues for 10 years so I've only really been part of the PRO12, Magners and all that but the Premiership is a different ball game. It's survival and it has to be the best league in the world for club rugby, it's exciting times."
And if Burnell has learnt one immediate lesson, it is to check with any future recruits whether they are English-qualified - if London Welsh hit a certain threshold throughout the season of just six non-EQP players in a matchday squad, they get a cash bonus.
Once the recruitment is finished and their season opener against Exeter Chiefs ticks ever closer, Burnell will move from his pre-season mindset to the challenge of winning matches. "When we come to that first block of six we have to go for it, we have to pick up two wins... if we get more than that, happy days."
Twenty-two matches now stand between London Welsh and survival, while Burnell wants them to compete, retaining their top-flight status is the clear goal. The team will have more nous than the last time they were in the Premiership, but for those who were part of their ill-fated 2012-13 campaign, there is a feeling of unfinished business and no more so than for club captain Corker.
"Bouncing back at the first chance is a huge positive for us and to win both legs of the Premiership play-off validates our claim," Corker said. "We're here to compete, we're not here to make up the numbers. We will go out every week and give it our all. We're in a much better place this time, we've got a great squad and that puts us in a great position. We're not unsettled, we've got no excuses and that's what makes it really exciting."
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Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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