London Welsh’s plight in the Aviva Premiership is well documented. They are adrift at the bottom of the league; they possess one point, earned from scoring four tries whilst Bath scored seven. They’ve been beaten up in all sorts of different ways and, in a ritual humiliation not known since cousin Henry told you what happened to him at boarding school, they have to do it all over again the following weekend.
The reasons for this are also well compiled. Whichever way you look at it, and there are far more learned men on both sides of the fence than I, it is a very sad situation. In essence; their promotion came too late to recruit; their RFU funding (£2 million less than those on top of the pile) is too little for them to hire the amount of players needed to compete in one of the world’s most attritional leagues; and like all good sporting vicious circles, loss begets loss. Confidence, faith, luck and all the things you get when life is going your way, have slipped into oblivion.
I watched them against London Irish at the weekend. They lined up, bereft by an unenviable injury list and, most painfully, some midweek ship jumping from their most feted of sailors: Piri Weepu, the marquee All Black scrum half, decided it best to sign for Wasps instead of sticking it out with Welsh. The exile ship is going down, and doing so without everyone who signed up.
I would not have been alone, as a neutral, in wanting London Welsh to win last Saturday. Bottom played second from bottom at home, and, for all their drubbings, you hoped something might break their way. Perhaps no-one watching, even Irish fans, would have begrudged the team who have conceded more points on average per game than any other team in the history of the competition, a little moment to shine their shoes. As the match unfolded, Welsh gave it their all, scored a good try, but ultimately were soundly beaten. You see, Irish, the penultimate side in the Aviva Premiership, are really quite good. They’re not second from bottom, more like eleventh from top. They’ve beaten Leicester and Newcastle and doused the Chiefs’ smoking fire. The men from the Madejski made light work of Welsh, notching up a neat little half century.
The home fans traipsed away from the Kassam realising that that really was that. In the royal court that is English rugby’s top flight, London Welsh are the fool. A plaything, a punch bag, a poor, pathetic peasant, here only for other people’s amusement. Dance Welsh, dance, for the merriment is ours.
In Shakespeare, the bard uses his fool not only as light relief, but also as a vessel in which to convey a message to his audience. A character who delivers mirth but also sobriety. Early on in Twelfth Night, the fool in Olivia’s court, Feste, challenges his lady’s mourning of her late brother, inferring that she be the fool to lament her brother’s position in heaven, even though it be a better place than earth. From that point on, we watch a character who seems to have a potent part in the tale; Feste is at the heart of the plot to bring down Malvolio, the arrogant and priggish butler of the house; it is the fool who seems to recognise the folly of Viola, the heroine of the plot, in love with the Duke yet disguised as his manservant Cesario; and, indeed, Feste outs Sir Toby Belch and Maria, the story’s chief trouble makers, as the play draws to a close. An old drama teacher of mine swore blind that Feste was the telling piece in the Twelfth Night jigsaw. “He controls the fate of all the major players,” he once mused.
So, we pity the fool. London Welsh will, pathetically, make their way back to England’s second tier. They came, they tried, with one hand tied behind their back and a number of lordly feet on their head. And we all laughed at them giving it a go. There is nothing left for them here, what’s to play for now?
Well, funny you should mention that. Because, you see, between 2nd in the league (Saracens) and 6th (Tigers) there is one point. The battle for an invaluable top four berth is so tight it could well come down to points difference. As we head in to round 17 (6 games left) here is how 2nd to 6th looks on the table.
If all things conspire, come the end of round 22, we could be looking at how many tries, penalties and conversions these five teams managed to rack up. And yes, you’ve guessed it. Who are five of London Welsh’s next six opponents? You couldn’t make it up: Exeter, Bath, Wasps, Leicester and Saracens. How many points these five teams score against London Welsh might dictate which three make the playoffs. As far as the push for the top four is concerned, London Welsh’s performances could be instrumental. Bizarrely, the team who has been the laughing stock of the league, now has their opposition looking all serious. Suddenly, the fool becomes the kingmaker.
So, London Welsh will have a hand in the fate of all the major players. I hope they fight ’til the end, play the crucial part in the smash hit that we all thought was about something else. Shakespeare would have loved it. Dance Welsh, dance, and defend like you mean it. For the merriment of the Premiership is rightfully yours.
Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.