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London Welsh double act with a five-year masterplan

The John Dawes suite at Old Deer Park is adorned with memorabilia from the bygone age when London Welsh were the finest club side in the land, if not the world.

They boasted luminaries of the game – 43 British Lions in total including JPR, Merve the Swerve, John Taylor and Dawes himself. But that all seems a long, long time ago as the club embark on their recovery mission from the depths of Herts and Middlesex 1, the ninth level of English rugby.

The club’s dalliance with Premiership Rugby finally cost them. Big time. After years of financial troubles, the sword of Damocles hanging over them came down on January 24, forcing the dissolution of the professional team.

Seven months on and 31-cap Welsh Grand Slam winner Sonny Parker and former Ospreys prop Cai Griffiths are the new men in charge, determined to lead the club back to “where it belongs”.

The club maintained their amateur side, as well as support- ing a highly popular minis section on Sunday mornings, and the ambition to take the club back to the top is clear in new leaders Parker and Griffiths.

“I came very close to going back to New Zealand but Pete Lowe, the club’s treasurer who is part of the new board, called me and asked me to hang around,” said Parker, the newly appointed director of rugby and only man remaining from the professional set-up.

“A couple of month later, he told me about the board’s ambitions for the club and he asked me to take charge of the team.

“I accepted straight away. I just had to stay and help London Welsh build. We want to bring the club back to where it belongs.

“If I put my hand on my heart, when the professional team was there we didn’t do enough to get involved with the amateur team and I regret that.

“I know John Taylor has been in touch with chairman Gwyn Williams saying he’s impressed with the new plans for the club. To hear that from someone as respected as John is exciting.

“We have high goals of getting back into the National Leagues over the next five years.

“That means four promotions in five seasons but everything is in place to do so.”

Grateful for the opportunity to further his coaching career, Griffiths was quick to accept Parker’s offer to work as his head coach – but he still gets to boss the old centre around.

“It’s a funny situation where Sonny is my boss here but I’m his boss in our job working for a training company called TLC (Training Learning Company) based in Swansea,” explained the former tighthead. “I’m an operations manager and Sonny just came on board going out and training people. He’s already asked for a pay rise but I said No.

“We’ve known each other since 2004 at Ospreys and then London Welsh. Our good relationship on and off the field means it is easier for us to have some hard discussions but then move on very quickly.”

On how to attract players to join the adventure, Griffiths adds: “We don’t pay players so we’re looking for people who want to come to London for their careers but still want to play rugby.

“We’re trying to build a portfolio of businesses in different sectors which could lead them to our door.

“That could be a set-up very attractive for those coming out of university, too, and we’re looking at an official partnership with the Universities of Cardiff and Swansea to give students a pathway to the City while playing rugby.

“They would get to be coached by the great Sonny Parker and maybe even play with him.

“He keeps threatening to put his boots back on but he seems to always forget them for training!”

Griffiths added: “The best feedback we can get as an amateur side is the number of players turning up for training and the numbers have remained high since we started pre-season.

“We’re putting everything in place now to make sure it remains that way come the winter and those 50-50 calls between going to training or the pub fall in our favour in the middle of November when it’s raining and freezing cold.

“Playing well and winning games will help so we’re looking to hit the ground running.

“With all due respect to the other teams in the league, a club like London Welsh doesn’t belong there and we’re putting everything into place to climb back up.”

With the luxury of a professional set-up gone, nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to simple equipment.

“The thing I noticed first last year with the amateur team was that they didn’t have nice balls to play with so I made sure we got better ones to start the season,” said Parker. “I’m a back so I’m fussy about that.

“Cai had to bargain hard to get lineout lifters which is a sleeve the jumpers put on their legs in training. That makes the sessions much better and saves on tape, another expensive thing.

“I didn’t know anything about the amateur team so the first thing for me was to see the skill levels and calibre of players I was dealing with to work out a game plan that would suit us.

“We only have two sessions a week so we’ve got to make the most of them.

“We try to structure our sessions to make them as much fun as we can with skills work which can then be transferred on to the rugby side of things.

“Rugby’s a simple game and I’m all about visual awareness. The players have impressed me and I’ve got a game plan in mind. I can’t wait to get started.”

NICK VERDIER

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