- Burnell praises Championship as a competition
- Welsh looking beyond merely survival
Photo: Getty Images
London Welsh Head Coach Justin Burnell says his charges have learned a huge amount from their successful year in the Greene King IPA Championship and will be approaching the Aviva Premiership campaign as though they are “here to stay”.
Welsh were relegated from the top tier in 2012/3 but regrouped rapidly under Burnell, who replaced Lyn Jones at the helm last June.
An impressively consistent regular season saw just four losses and the Exiles were comprehensive victors in the final against Bristol Rugby, eventually prevailing 48-28 over two legs.
Now back in the big time, they host Exeter Chiefs on Sunday at the Kassam Stadium and their pragmatic boss insists the Championship has steeled the entire outfit and instilled steadfast self-belief.
“[The Championship] is a very good league to play in,” he explained. “It’s very competitive and it’s full of big rugby clubs. From Jersey to Moseley to Plymouth, everyone on their day is more than capable of beating anyone else.
“This year we’ll be in front of big crowds at Welford Road and Saracens. There’s perhaps a sense of razzmatazz that you might not get down at Plymouth in the pouring rain, for instance.
“In those games, when there aren’t many people there and the opposition players are banging their heads against the wall, you have to get yourselves up for it. That was a big learning curve for us.
“That’s why the Championship is so good. We’ve taken on a lot of lessons. If we face Leicester and we aren’t up for it, we’ll be on a hiding to nothing.
“I don’t want to fall into this trap of saying we are aiming for 11th spot [this season] and calling every game a cup final. Of course, we need to take every game as it comes but we also have to say: ‘Right, we’re here for the long haul’.
“There might be some dark days on our journey, but it’s about how we deal with that.”
Burnell has made a total of 25 signings in a bid to add big-game experience. Olly Barkely, a 23-cap former England fly half, and Rugby World Cup-winning All Black scrum half Piri Weepu are among the more high-profile additions to a club that is clearly determined to beat the drop.
Despite such wholesale changes though, Burnell is adamant that a grounded, resolute attitude will remain.
“The key is in the title – it’s promotion. That means everyone at the club – the players, the coaches and even the community department – have to step up.
“To be brutally honest, our initial focus was nothing beyond the top four [last year]. Then we stood back, assessed the opposition and realised we could push on.
“We know things will be tougher, but we’ll do the same this time round.
“The likes of Dan Schofield, Pete Browne, Dan Browne, Tom May, Piri Weepu and Tim Molenaar – they’re vital. That’s an innate quality we have at our squad: nobody is afraid of giving an opinion, but they know when the right to speak up is.
“That’s a massive strength of ours. If you have 10 people giving their opinions at the same time, things would be very difficult. It’d be like my house with my wife and my kids.”