It barely seems possible that an article like this is being written again, with many hoping that the fates of Worcester Warriors and Wasps would be the final evidence that things needed to change and that rugby union in England needs better support from governing bodies and organisations than it is currently receiving.
However, here we are, with things not changing as required and another club suffering the consequences, as London Irish was this week suspended from the English Premiership and have now filed for administration. As with Worcester and Wasps, they have a long history in the English game and are a longstanding name in the sport, and yet, after this week, they will be similarly eradicated from the top tiers of the game and forced to start again.
How did we get here?
Only a month ago, London Irish were celebrating a home win against Exeter Chiefs in their final game of the season and a fifth-placed finish in the Premiership, which had seen them miss out on the play-off places but which had seen them qualify for a second consecutive campaign of Champions Cup rugby. At that point, things, on the surface at least, seemed to be very positive for them, with results not only being attained but the style of play being attractive and talk of how they would build on their success during the close season for another push at the top four.
However, when scratching underneath those on-field successes, it immediately becomes clear that things were not going so well at the club, and hadn’t been for some time. Debts had grown to around £30m and efforts to find new owners had become protracted, with current owner Mick Crossan reportedly spending an extended period of time discussing a takeover with an American consortium but not seeing things move as quickly as everyone would have hoped.
As a result, things really started to take a turn for the worse, and it became even more common knowledge that they were struggling when reports emerged of players and staff not being paid their April wages on time, and receiving them just as they were preparing to submit breach-of-contract notices. Crossan was the one who stepped in to pay those wages, and, for a short time at least, it did seem to keep the wolves from the door.
However, to keep the club going, the takeover needed to be completed quickly, and time became even more of the essence when the Rugby Football Union (RFU) stepped in with a deadline of 30 May for it to be finished, or for proof that the club could operate financially for next season to be provided. If neither was received by the governing body, then they would have no choice but to suspend the club from the Premiership.
That deadline was later extended to 6 June, due to requests from both player and staff for more time, and the fact that they wanted that extension despite only receiving half of their May wages indicated how desperate they were for London Irish to navigate these increasingly choppy waters.
However, the second deadline was not met and there is still no sign of a takeover materialising, and that, coupled with the serving of a winding-up petition to the stricken club by HM Revenue and Customs over an unpaid tax bill, led to the inevitable happening, with London Irish being officially suspended from the top flight two days ago and informed that they would not be allowed to play in any league next season by the RFU.
What happens next?
Quite simply, no-one knows. A takeover could still happen, and that might inject the funds that London Irish have become so desperate for as they try to rebuild (although talks are now described as, in effect, dead in the water), or there could be developments in the shape of a third body stepping in to keep them going.
There have been some reports that the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) has looked into taking action to help them, given the links between the club and Irish rugby as a whole, and there were suggestions that they could use any future partnership to give more younger Irish players a chance to develop. However, those rumours have been quickly quashed by the IRFU, who have said today that they are not looking to invest in rugby outside of Ireland.
For those involved in the club, it has been a really difficult time, and the thoughts of all fans are with the players and staff who will now likely, if they haven’t already, lose their jobs (there have been some websites who have used the word “disbanded” to describe the club, but it is not clear if they have done that yet due to the mainstream media not officially using that term).
Club legend Topsy Ojo, speaking to BBC Sport after their suspension, described their turmoil as leaving people feeling as if their hearts had been ripped out, because of the meaning that it has for the community around it and the fact that it has come so soon after what had been a really positive campaign on the field.
There will no doubt be further questions from some directed towards the RFU, with them promising to restructure the game ahead of the 2024/2025 campaign and to provide a more sustainable future for it, but many will feel that only acting then will be too late. They will argue that rugby in England cannot go on as it is now, because it is clear that a lack of support and financial help is leaving clubs high and dry as they try to adjust to new demands.
When Worcester encountered difficulties, many feared that, given the devastation that the pandemic had on many clubs, they would not be the only ones to struggle to stay afloat. The experiences of Wasps and now London Irish will show that there really is a domino effect starting to occur, and it is unlikely to end here.
The RFU had plans back in 2021 to expand the Premiership into a 14-team league. As things stand, with London Irish following Worcester and Wasps out of the door, there are just 10 teams left in the top flight. The way things are going, there could well be others who suffer a similar fate, and that aforementioned reset could be a case of too little, too late.