The news has come that many fans have been dreading. London Irish have followed the likes of Wasps and Worcester into the depths of financial despair as they see their Premiership ambitions fall to tatters.
Following a petition filed at the High Court on Friday against London Irish Holdings Limited and London Irish Rugby Football Ground Limited, the club were in dire straights. They were due to be suspended from the Premiership if they could not complete a takeover or prove that they have the funding to operate for the entire 2023/24 season.
Since that time, the club has seen their worst fears realised, with the age old Exiles suspended from the Premiership.
A statement from the RFU read: “As a result of London Irish and its potential buyers being unable to provide reassurances over the club’s financial ability to operate in the Premiership in the 2023/24 season, the RFU has confirmed the club is not able to participate in any league next season.
“The RFU’s club financial viability Group allowed an extra week’s extension. However, the club has failed to meet its commitments to pay staff and players in full for May.
“The decision was taken after six months of talks to take over the club failed to materialise and to provide certainty to staff and players, thereby allowing them to seek alternative employment. The move also provides clarity to other clubs in the league and prevents a situation where the club goes into administration part way through a season.
“The RFU, Premiership Rugby and the RPA have been in regular dialogue with the club to support the takeover and provide regular updates to players and staff. Today, the three organisations have announced they have launched a hardship fund for players and staff who are most in need of financial support.
“Funded by the RFU and PRL, the hardship fund will be administered by Restart the official charity of the RPA; the fund will also be available to those in need following the Wasps and Worcester insolvencies.”
RFU CEO Bill Sweeney was sympathetic in his statement: “This is desperately sad news for everyone who is part of the London Irish community as well as all the players, fans, staff and volunteers for whom this club means so much.
“Working alongside Premiership Rugby, the RPA and London Irish over recent months, our collective first priority has been to do the utmost to secure the long-term viability of the club and the protection of its players and staff.
“To achieve this, it was imperative that transparent evidence of funding be presented to us. This would have been either by the proposed buyers’ undertaking to provide all required working capital to meet the club’s obligations for at least the 2023/24 season; or the club providing evidence that it would continue to fund its operations throughout the 2023/24 season.
“Despite requesting this evidence over the last six months and receiving assurances on multiple occasions that we would receive proof of ownership and funds, it has not materialised. In the event that it would ultimately not be possible to save London Irish, our second priority has always been to avoid the club entering an unplanned insolvency mid-season.
“This was to prevent the huge disruption to players, staff, and fans, as well as on the remainder of the league and sporting integrity of the Premiership and Championship, that we witnessed with the demise of Wasps and Worcester.
“In the absence of transparent proof of reliable long-term funding, and for the duty of care for all involved at the club, the sad decision has now been taken to suspend the club from RFU leagues.
“The RFU, working with Premiership Rugby and the RPA, has been in constant dialogue with players to inform them of the situation. Collectively we have established a hardship fund to support those players and staff most in need and we will be working closely with London Irish to confirm what the future of rugby at the club looks like. With regret, this will not be in any league next season.
“The RFU will ensure the London Irish developing player pathway and academy continues, taking over the running of these programmes if required.”
RFU board chair Tom Ilube was keen to express the reasons for the suspension: “London Irish is a proud and storied institution, and this is an outcome no one involved with rugby wanted to see. Rugby has an underlying need to professionalise its management off the pitch, just as it has done on the pitch over the past 25 years.
“Covid-19 accelerated the impacts of underlying structural challenges and had a major effect on PRL clubs and the RFU. Given the cost-of-living crisis, the post-Covid-19 bounce back has been weaker than expected, and that has meant clubs with unsustainable business models have gone out of business – regrettably so for players and their fans.
“To thrive, rugby clubs need to have a wide-ranging offering and varied revenue streams. All three clubs that have failed this season have had fragile business models for many years. The structure and ownership of a stadium is a factor alongside reliance on a single funder, challenging societal trends, financial mismanagement, and an insufficiently large fan base.
“Not all three clubs had all these issues, but they faced a combination of these factors over many years before covid and the current economic downturn. We, along with PRL and its investors will use the remodelling of the new Professional Game Agreement to create a more sustainable game for professional rugby.
“It is the specific job of the RFU, as the national governing body for rugby union in England, to reinvest revenues in the overall growth of the game both at a community and professional level; we currently contribute £25million to the Premiership each year but cannot continue to invest in failing business models.
“That means tough investment decisions. There is a thriving community club at London Irish Amateur RFC and we will help to facilitate discussions that support the London Irish name to live on in England.”
Premiership Rugby CEO Simon Massie-Taylor added: “We are extremely mindful of the impact this news has on players and staff at London Irish and that is exactly why we have set up the hardship fund to support players and staff most impacted.
“I thank the other Premiership Rugby clubs for supporting this and the RPA for helping implement the scheme. We fully appreciate that this does not compensate for the loss of jobs or the impact it has on fans, but we are committed to working with all stakeholders to create a professional rugby system that London Irish can re-enter at the right time.
“As a league, we are making significant progress in recalibrating so that Premiership Rugby prospers in the seasons ahead. In the meantime, if an owner decides to withdraw financial support for a club, we have limited options to keep it going.”
RPA general secretary Christian Day added: “The loss of London Irish, a proud club with a rich playing history, is undoubtedly sad. The human impact of this failure will affect more than 100 players and staff who are now faced with uncertainty and will leave many thousands of fans without their beloved club.
“Learning from the experiences of Wasps and Worcester and working in partnership with Premiership Rugby and the RFU, we have been able to create a hardship fund to be administered by the RPA’s charity, Restart. This fund will be utilised to support both players and staff who are most in need of support.
“It is clear that much positive change is required in order to evolve our playing and working environment so as to match the demands of modern professionalism. The RPA will continue to work in partnership with the game’s other stakeholders in order to ensure that rugby union in this country emerges stronger and more stable in the future, with the players at its centre.”