In 1885 at a Fleet Street hotel a group of London Welshmen met to discuss the formation of a rugby club for fellow countrymen in exile and with great enthusiasm London Welsh Rugby Club (Clwb Rygbi Cymry Llundain) was established.
The club’s first game was on October 24th, 1885, against London Scottish, but after nine successful years the Welsh suffered a temporary setback when they were forced, due to various reasons, to disband but within a year London Welsh was reborn.
Yet, they still continued to battle against the prevailing problems that they encountered such as the lack of a permanent home ground and persistent financial difficulties.
Enter the captain of Wales in 1905, Willie Llewellyn, who was also a student at the Pharmaceutical College in London. Innovative and passionate he proposed that the WRU refuse to cap any Welsh player living in London unless they played for London Welsh.
The ploy worked with several of the greatest players at the time (Teddy Morgan, Rhys Gabe, Hop Maddocks & Arthur Harding) eagerly attaching themselves to the club. With leading players to watch admiring supporters multiplied at the prestigious Queen’s Club, by now the club’s headquarters.
On the move
Following their time spent at the Queen's Club the Welsh then played at the County Ground in Leyton and subsequently at the Memorial Ground, West Ham (taking over from West Ham United after they transferred to Upton Park). The following five years, until the outbreak of the First World War were spent at the Heathfield Ground, Wandsworth, which had been vacated by Harlequins following their move to the new RFU Ground at Twickenham.
After the war ended, the club moved to Hearne Hill, where they remained until 1957. However, it was the relocation to Old Deer Park in Richmond, which would mark the most prominent years in London Welsh’s proud history.
The club has attracted many phenomenal players since its inception from Willie Llewellyn and his aforementioned contemporaries through to the 1920 and 1930s where electrifying rugby was played by the likes of scrumhalf Wick Powell (1926), Vivian Jenkins (1930), Claude Davey (1935) and Arthur Rees (1935).
The Golden era
The most renowned rugby in the history of London Welsh, however, was played between 1966 and 1973, and it is this period many remember as the golden years.
During this time Welsh played some dazzling and successful rugby with current President John Dawes as captain supported by fellow club legends including JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, John Taylor, the late Mervyn Davies, Mike Roberts and Geoff Evans to name but a few.
The ‘Untouchables’ were unbeatable and their growing reputation was rightly recognised with an amateur era record of seven teammates selected for Carwyn James’ 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand. James himself was a former London Welsh player and his Lions remained true to the free and open playing style developed at Old Deer Park as they ran the All Blacks ragged to win the series 2-1.
Remarkably at this time the club fielded 14 internationals in front of capacity crowds.
So Near and Yet So Far
Led by Wales international Clive Rees, and including the likes of Robert Ackerman, Mark Douglas and Kevin Bowring. The 1985 journey to Twickenham represented the club’s first cup final appearance, and as Welsh approached their centenary year hopes were high that they could finish the season by winning the John Player Special Cup.
The cup odyssey began with an 18-10 victory over Peter Winterbottom’s Headingley at Kirkstall in the third-round – Mark Douglas’ late try seeing Welsh home – to set up a trip to Beeston to face Nottingham. Nottingham, who included Rob Andrew in their line up, were favourites but Andrew missed nine of his ten kicks at goal and Welsh won 12-11. Douglas claimed Welsh’s solitary try of the match with Colyn Price’s excellent conversion carrying the visitors to victory.
On to the quarter-finals where an interception try from Jeremy Hughes helped London Welsh to a 21-0 win over a spirited Waterloo at Old Deer Park. Coventry, who had knocked out Leicester in the quarters, now stood between Welsh and a Twickenham date. Before a full house at Coventry, Stuart Russell scored the Exiles’ opening try from a driving maul and Matthew Ebsworth went over under the posts for the visitors’ second. Two Coventry penalties, to add to their earlier solitary try, drew the home side level, 10-10, but it was Welsh who advanced to the final courtesy of their superior try-count.
So in front of 32,000 at Twickenham, London Welsh made its first cup final appearance. They faced a Bath side boasting nine internationals and it was Welsh’s illustrious opponents who led 18-0 at the break. But Welsh fought back in the second half, with Price landing five kicks at goal, and reduced the gap to just six points, only for Bath to make the game safe with two penalties of their own, 24-15. Alas, no silverware to mark the club’s centenary year.
The late 1980s was a difficult time for the club as economic conditions saw a reduction on the number of top class Welsh players coming to London. It was at this time league rugby was introduced and the club it slid into the Fifth Division South.
But the club battled back and a renaissance was occurring due largely to the inspiring Clive Griffiths. With dogged determination Welsh climbed back to the First Division of the National League, striving to take the club back to the top where it belonged.
In 1999 and in National League One, coach Adrian Davies joined the club and backed by a group of former Saracens, including forwards coach Mark Langley, Andy Lee, the goal-kicking outside-half, and hooker Greg Botterman saw continued improvement.
Turmoil and triumphs
The club continued in the right direction and at the start of the 2008/09 season it took the momentous decision to turn full-time professional.
Despite this relatively new professionalism, London Welsh has remained keen to retain the atmosphere of an amateur club with the unbeatable social tradition still to be cherished, community rugby at London Welsh was starting to grow again running two mens teams, a women's and with mini and youth starting to rapidly expend.
Unfortunately, this air of optimism soon turned sour as the club was placed into administration in June 2009. Thankfully, this was short-lived as the following month Welsh were rescued when they were bought from the receivers and allowed to continue in the Championship, albeit with a five-point deduction for that season.
In January 2010 the professional club secured control back from Red Dragon Rugby Limited and despite the off field turmoil, head coach Danny Wilson guided the Exiles to the Championship semi-finals, where they lost out to Bristol at the Memorial Stadium.
The summer of 2010 saw Wilson depart for pastures new with former England hooker and national sevens coach Phil Greening promoted from assistant coach to head coach, with Mike Friday coming on board.
Sadly the 2010/11 season would end in another Championship semi-final defeat - this time at Mennaye Field to Cornish Pirates - and Greening departed to be replaced by former Ospreys head coach Lyn Jones.
The Exiles would start the 2011/12 season with victories at Gloucester and relegated Leeds Carnegie. They would twice hit top spot during the course of the season but would have to settle for fourth in the table and a two-legged semi-final with Bedford Blues.
The Exiles did the hard work on a miserable night at Goldington Road, winning 10-3, but there were nerves aplenty at Old Deer Park as the Blues fought back. Welsh eventually winning 30-27 on aggregate.
The Pirates awaited in the final but Welsh turned the tables and made amends for the previous year’s semi-final defeat by winning 37-21 at Mennaye Field with a superb display, despite learning just hours before kick-off that the club’s application to join the Aviva Premiership had been rejected by the RFU.
Despite this, a week later Welsh finished the job at the Kassam Stadium in Oxford with a 29-20 wonderful win.
The club followed up victory on the pitch with an even more significant one off it, as it won its appeal against the RFU’s decision – London Welsh would after all take its rightful place in the Aviva Premiership for the 2012/13 season.
Back in the big time, Welsh were written off as relegation fodder, but following a baptism of fire against Leicester Tigers and Harlequins, the Exiles stunned Exeter Chiefs at the Kassam Stadium, with Seb Jewell converting Ed Jackson’s late try, before then overturning Sale Sharks.
Nick Scott’s last-gasp intercept try accounted for Bath and when the Exiles ground out a victory over London Irish they had four wins on the board by the first week of December and survival suddenly seemed a realistic target.
Sadly, however, Welsh would not win another league game until the final weekend of the regular season and by then the club’s return to the Championship had been sealed – the Exiles never recovering from a five-point deduction imposed for fielding an unregistered player.
But the club regrouped quickly. Former Cardiff Blues head coach Justin Burnell was appointed and despite a high turnover on the playing front, some astute signings meant the Exiles hit the ground running when the 2013/14 Championship season got underway.
Nine straight wins saw the Exiles perched at the top of the table, but defeats to Bedford, London Scottish and Plymouth Albion checked ambitions. Welsh got things back on track with a resounding win over Rotherham Titans and a second place finish in the table set up a thrilling semi-final clash with Leeds Carnegie, which saw the Exiles score 15 points in the final 12 minutes of a pulsating 2nd leg at the Kassam Stadium to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
And so to Bristol in the final for a place in the Aviva Premiership. Despite conceding an early try on a rainy Oxford night, the Exiles responded to take a 27-8 lead back to the Memorial Stadium thanks to tries from Nathan Trevett, Nick Scott and Supporters Player of the Year Carl Kirwan.
On June 4th the Exiles completed the job at an emotionally charged Memorial Stadium, but not before Adam Hughes’s try cut Welsh’s aggregate lead to eight points with 11 minutes remaining. Cool heads prevailed, however, as Nathan Vella touched down following a powerful catch and drive, and Seb Stegmann added the icing to see the Exiles prevail 21-20 on the night. Captain Tom May and head coach Justin Burnell lifted the trophy amidst joyous scenes.
Tough at the Top
June 4th was soon a dim and distant memory, however, as the club’s return to the top flight turned into a nightmare and brought an unwarranted record. The Exiles would fail to win a single competitive game all season, picking up just one bonus point in the Aviva Premiership (vs Bath Rugby at The Rec) to end the campaign with the worst record in Premiership history.
It was a season that began amidst a mood of such optimism, as Welsh added the likes of All Black World Cup winner Piri Weepu, Ex-England and Bath star fly half Olly Barkley, Argentina prop Pablo Henn, former England second row Dean Schofield, Tonga props Taine Vea and Eddie Aholelei, Tim Molenaar from Harlequins, hooker Koree Britton (ex-Northampton Saints and Gloucester), second row James Down from Cardiff Blues, fly half Tristan Roberts (Bristol) and centre Nick Reynolds (Scarlets) to their Championship winning side, the bulk of whom the club had managed to hold on to.
The Exiles’ 52-0 defeat at the hands of Exeter Chiefs on the opening weekend of the Premiership season was a baptism of fire, however, and a sign of things to come unfortunately.
In March, following the club’s third 70 plus defeat of the season away to Exeter Chiefs, the club parted company with head coach Justin Burnell, with defence coach Rowland Phillips appointed to take over the reins until the end of the season, a season which came to an end against Saracens on May 6th at the Kassam Stadium – a game which saw captain Tom May bow out after an illustrious career.
The final round defeat to Saracens brought the curtain down on a wretched season, but one throughout which the morale, spirit and determination of the players remained admirably high. A collective experience that stood the squad in good stead for the challenges to come in 2015/16.
The season’s end also signalled a flurry of off field activity. Rowland Phillips’ – a former London Welsh player and captain - position was made permanent while in came the likes of Josh Drauniniu (Worcester Warriors), Martyn Thomas (Wasps), Guy Armitage (London Irish), Kieran Murphy (Brive), Ryan Hodson (Jersey), Gus Jones (Wasps), Will Skuse (Bath Rugby), Darryl Marfo (Harlequins), Ryan Glynn (Jersey). Expectations were high for 2015/16.
Friday 26th June 2015 brought some momentous off the field news from the Club, as it announced its decision to move away from Oxford, after three seasons, and return to Old Deer Park.
Cup success at last!
Even by London Welsh standards, 2015/16 was a rollercoaster of a season. A year which began and ended with victories over Championship finalists Doncaster Knights, in between saw the club flirt with relegation before rousing to win the British and Irish Cup and finish fifth.
Victory at Castle Park on the opening weekend, thanks to Guy Armitage’s hat-trick - the club’s first competitive win in over a year – fanned hopes that Welsh could challenge for the third Championship title.
But Welsh lost their way in October, with the low point being a 27-3 home defeat to Ealing Trailfinders, and for the next three months the Exiles’ season oscillated between excruciating lows and extraordinary highs - none more so than in the ‘Miracle of ODP’, in which the Exiles scored 26 unanswered points in the final 19 minutes to snatch a thrilling victory over Cardiff Blues Premiership Select.
When Welsh welcomed Moseley to ODP on January 2, they did so knowing that defeat, if combined with an Ealing victory, would leave them propping up the Championship table. The relief therefore was tangible as the Exiles romped to a 32-6 win.
The club’s B&I Cup adventure continued with Olly Barkley clinching victory at the Arms Park with the last kick of the match, but a third defeat of the season to the Pirates left the Exiles contemplating an away quarter-final trip to number one seeds Leinster ‘A’.
A prospect which seemed even less appealing after Welsh’s 64-20 thrashing at Goldington Road. But that chastening loss would prove the turning point in the Exiles’ season. A second last-gasp defeat to London Scottish followed, but the seeds of progress were clear to see and consecutive wins over Nottingham, Jersey and Rotherham Titans had Welsh climbing the table.
Confidence rising, Welsh then stunned Leinster ‘A’ at Donnybrook as Josh Drauniniu’s late try saw the Exiles edge an 11-try thriller. Rowland Phillips’ side followed that by booking their place in the final by ending their Cornish Pirates hoodoo. There had been a definite momentum swing.
Sadly, an agonisingly late defeat to Yorkshire Carnegie ended hopes of gate-crashing the play-off party, but Welsh got their revenge a week later in the B&I Cup final, as James Lewis claimed a hat-trick in a comprehensive 33-10 win. The club’s first cup final appearance since its 1985 Twickenham defeat to Bath, and its first success!
The Club Today
The club struggled to find new investment whlist in the Championship and the club is now once again constituted as an members club playing in Herts & Middx 1.