'Did it need to get to this whereby we have lost three clubs?' - The sad tale of London Irish needs to be the last of its kind

Irish were tenants at Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium but failed to garner the desired attendances after the Covid-19 pandemic
©London Irish

There are no two ways about it. This has been a disastrous season for the top-flight of English rugby and news on Wednesday that London Irish would be filing for administration after being suspended from the Premiership bookended one of the most depressing campaigns in recent memory.

The Exiles became the third club to go down this unwanted path this term - following Worcester and Wasps - and now serious questions need to be answered about how the game has got itself into this situation.

Those questions will fall at the door of the RFU and Premiership Rugby. They must act now to avoid this from happening again.

"The answer you are looking for doesn't lie on the field. It lies in the boardrooms," former London Irish player Richard Thorpe told TRU. "On the pitch, Irish looked so strong but it is the business side of rugby that is struggling right now. I can't help but see it being a fundamental business organisational issue.

"Sadly, it is the players, the coaches and the management, the staff and supporters who pay the price. I hope deeply this is now it. It is just these three clubs that were unsound financially and the rest are going to be OK. If one good thing could come from all of this, perhaps we will see rugby clubs managed and run more effectively by competent business people. It is a broken business model and hopefully we are going to get the right people around it now to put it right."

"They [RFU CEO Bill Sweeney and Premiership chief executive Simon Massie-Taylor] are the people in the positions [of power] at the minute so you almost have to trust them," Irish club legend Topsy Ojo told TRU.

"They are the guys currently in charge. This is what you have on your table at the minute so it is up to you guys to figure it out and come up with the right solution going forwards because there is a lot at stake if we don't get it right."

Last week, the government assigned two independent advisors to help support the RFU and Premiership Rugby as they try to get the sport back on track but to start a season with 13 teams and end it with 10 shows the size of the task all involved have on their hands.

How they begin to rebuild the game is something everybody will be keeping a close eye on but the grim reality of Irish's demise means, for a third time this season, many have lost their jobs and it is of no fault of their own.

"It has been fairly wild just trying to, of course, process everything and figure out how things have ended up the way they have," Ojo said. "Think of the staff, the players, the supporters, everyone connected to the club. You have 100-odd people on the books currently but then even more wider afield than that so it's thinking about everyone involved.

"It has been a brutal process and it has been really tough on a whole lot of good people. I think the players were only a week away from starting pre-season for next year so to have that ripped away is really painful."

Thorpe added: "I have got friends there that are still involved like Declan Danaher [assistant coach] who I played with over my time there and he, as well as the rest of the club, have got a tough period in front of them. I am certainly feeling it because it is a big part of my history as it was for so many others. It is heartbreaking."

Terms such as 'brutal' and 'painful' used by both Ojo and Thorpe - who played together for Irish when they reached the Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals in 2008 and the Premiership final in 2009 - are unfortunately words which have stained this season.

The sad tales of Worcester and Wasps were littered with these types of phrases and even after the RFU and Premiership Rugby were questioned about the financial failings of both clubs before Christmas, it seems like lessons haven't been learnt.

In relation to Irish's story, they became tenants at the Brentford Community Stadium when they moved back into London but the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic affected attendances while it has been reported the club also had one of the largest wage bills in the league.

All of this led to owner Mick Crossan being unable to balance the finances leading to the club's debt hitting the £30 million mark.

"I would like to think something could have been done to avoid what has happened," Ojo said. "I am not privy to how the conversations went but at some stage, something or someone could have stepped in and stopped it from getting to this stage not just for Irish, but for Worcester and Wasps as well. That's the biggest shame of it.

"Did it need to get to this period whereby we have now lost three clubs? I always like to think there is a solution somewhere but unfortunately, here we are. Let's see what the future holds now. I am sure more details will come out over the coming days and months so we can kind of know what the picture looks like and for rugby in general and see if we have learnt what we need to."

In the statement the RFU released on Tuesday following the suspension of London Irish, the governing body's chairman - Tom Ilube - said: "We currently contribute £25 million to the Premiership each year but cannot continue to invest in failing business models. That means tough investment decisions."

You'd think that quote suggests those in power realise their model and approach needs to change - and change fast - to improve the outlook of the English game, but having been the Director of Rugby at National One club Chinnor, Thorpe feels whatever the picture may look like in the future, it has to be all-encompassing.

"We've already seen in the Championship and National One and the grassroots teams a reduction in support from the RFU and revenues are getting filtered into the Premiership presumably to avoid something like this [what has happened at London Irish].

"Clearly it hasn't worked. I only needed to look over the road when I was Director of Rugby at Chinnor to Thame Football Club supported by the FA. I think they are a level seven or level eight side but they have remarkable facilities, so well funded with a decent crowd for that level. To contrast that with a National One side, less than a mile down the road, you can just see how football are getting something right with developing the grassroots clubs so that needs to be thought about as well."

The feel-good stories lower down the rugby pyramid of Jersey Reds' title win and Cambridge clinching promotion to the Championship have seemingly been overshadowed by the dark, financial problems engulfing the Premiership.

After suspension and now administration, the next phase for London Irish is a horrible unknown. It had been reported the Irish Rugby Football Union had been in discussions with the RFU about investing in the Exiles but they have since been muted.

What is abundantly clear, though, is those in power need to ensure another top-flight club doesn't fall by the wayside whilst also providing a more sustainable future for the game. 

"We saw this start with Worcester and then Wasps and you thought that has to be the end of it but then you top it off with London Irish just when we thought things couldn't get any worse," Ojo concludes. "I know Premiership Rugby and the RFU will be having these deep conversations about how they restructure things just so that this has to be the end of it.

"We don't know the positions of other teams, but you have to hope this is the end of it. It is a shame from a personal point of view that it is London Irish but from a game-wide point of view, we need to get on top of this so the future of the game is very clear and actually, everybody can go on and succeed."

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