Marcus Watson Interview: I really hope London Irish don't follow Wasps and Worcester - That won't be an easy thing to take

Marcus Watson - along with brothers Anthony and Callum - began his rugby journey in London Irish's academy
©David Howlett

This has been a Gallagher Premiership season unlike any other but mainly for all the wrong reasons.

We have witnessed two top-flight clubs go into administration and on Wednesday evening, the fate of a third continued to hang in the balance.

London Irish were granted a one-week extension to complete their proposed takeover after the players and staff appealed to the Rugby Football Union despite only receiving 50 per cent of their salaries for May.

On Tuesday, the RFU had originally agreed in principle to an extension under the condition that the current ownership paid salaries in full on Wednesday, but that deadline has now shifted once again.

The Exiles have until 4pm on June 6th to pay the remainder of the staff's wages and they must also prove they have sufficient funding in place for the 2023-24 season whether the takeover by the American consortium, led by Alfred 'Chip' Sloan, is completed or not.

If they are unable to meet these demands, Irish are at risk of being suspended from the Premiership.

Paula Carter - an RFU Board Member and Chair of the Club Financial Viability Working Group - said the RFU were "extremely disappointed that the club has so far only funded 50% of the staff and player wages, however, we have to respect the wishes of those most affected."

By once again moving the set deadline given to the Exiles, it is clear the RFU want to avoid a scenario where the club enters insolvency mid-season - as was the case with both Worcester and Wasps - but it is difficult not to draw parallels with those two clubs and the situation at Irish.

The dark, financial cloud hanging over the Premiership has been a glum and constant theme throughout the 2022-23 campaign and for Marcus Watson, to see another one of his former clubs seemingly clinging on to survival is heart sinking. 

The 31-year-old - along with brothers Anthony and Callum - all began their rugby journeys with London Irish before forging their own paths in the game: "To be honest with you, there has always been something about London Irish because all three of us started there and went through the academy. It means quite a lot to us," Watson tells TRU.

"It's always had a bit of a pull. I've always thought at one point when I left I'd like to finish by playing at London Irish so to think maybe once I come towards the end of my rugby career there might not be an Irish anymore, it is sad and not ideal."

On the pitch, there have been plenty of plus points for London Irish this season. Surging to the cusp of the top four was the perfect illustration of the talent the Exiles have within their ranks, highlighted by the rising stock of Henry Arundell and Tom Pearson.

But behind the scenes, it is seemingly very different.

If Irish do suffer an unwanted final nail in the coffin, the shining lights of Arundell, Pearson et al may be snapped up by other Premiership clubs but with many sides already getting their ducks in a row when it comes to recruitment, it could leave players and staff alike at a desperate crossroads.

"I just think it is a really weird situation where you watch the rugby on the pitch and the rugby itself is going really well," Watson adds.

"Look at where London Irish finished this season. They have been one of the most exciting teams this season but then you kind of look deeper into it and we've had two and maybe three clubs going [being suspended by the Premiership] and big clubs as well. It's not a good look at all and it's not happening to any other league, is it?

"London Irish have got some really, really good talent too who could be in a situation where they are looking for clubs. To be honest, I think because they have got such good players, they should be fine whatever the outcome is because they are potentially world-class players. 

"You don't want to think like this but you worry for the guys who might not be 'big names' who almost get forced into retirement. I saw it with Wasps. Thankfully it was great to see so many of my teammates at Wasps find a club but it is such a tough situation when all of sudden you are looking for your next club."

As Watson touches on, many of his ex-colleagues at Wasps found themselves in an unthinkable position earlier in the season when the club went into administration and they have recently been demoted to the bottom of English rugby's pyramid.

By this point, Watson had departed the Midlands after being released in May of last year and while the winger's situation of searching for employment slightly differs, he can sympathise with the uncertainty many connected to Wasps, Worcester and London Irish have experienced this term.

"I would be lying to you if I said at the time that I didn't want to stay at Wasps," Watson says. "I thought for the whole [2021-22] season I was going to be staying at Wasps and then it obviously transpired that they couldn't offer me a contract which at the time didn't really make sense, but obviously now I know exactly why.

"Mine wasn't quite as abrupt as what eventually happened to some of the other boys so in hindsight, at the time I thought I'd been a little bit hard done by but in all respects, mine was maybe a much easier situation compared to some of my other mates.

"Fortunately, I think most boys have managed to find somewhere but I think of Ben Harris - the prop - who is a good mate of mine. He's not played rugby for a long time all basically because of what happened with Wasps and I think, if I am right in saying, he had at least one more year maybe two more years on his contract.

"You kind of look at things like that and it's pretty tough. I really hope it [the ongoing situation at London Irish] is not going to be following Wasps and Worcester. That won't be an easy thing to take in the slightest."

After being released by Wasps, Watson took the opportunity to move to Benetton and after recently completing his maiden season with the club, the GB Sevens Olympic silver medalist seems settled in northern Italy.

"I have really enjoyed it!" Watson says. "Not too dissimilar to being at a new club in England, it takes a bit of getting used to. Obviously there are more differences here with the language and stuff like that but to be honest with you, I have been very lucky over here.

"I'd say 90 per cent of the team speak pretty good English so in terms of getting to know boys, it has been easy.  The only disadvantage to that is my Italian has come on incredibly slowly and I am hardly speaking any which I need to step up next season!"

Watson had a solid debut campaign with Benetton, who are continuing to take positive strides on the pitch after becoming the first-ever Italian side to reach a European semi-final following their appearance in the last four of the Challenge Cup.

With the arrival of Watson's ex-Wasps teammate Malakai Fekiota for next season - combined with the improvements made by the Italian national team which is having an impact on the club game - the winger is looking forward to 2023-24.

"One more year here and then we will see what happens," Watson says. "I have had a little bit of injury trouble in my past so it was nice to play consistently for the first time in a little while this year and play reasonably well and hopefully, I can play better next year and help the team."

It is clear Watson still has plenty more to give but when he does decide that his playing days might be coming to a close, he will hope - in his own words - that 'there will still be a London Irish' where he can finish his rugby career.

Widely regarded as the most competitive rugby union league in the can only be the Gallagher Premiership.

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