For years, London Irish had been on a downward curve, ever since the glory days when Kennedy and Casey were bossing the line-out, and Mapasua the midfield.
When all the successful trio left in consecutive seasons, The Exiles always knew they would have their work cut out to get back to the top. Steadily, London Irish slipped down the table, from ninth, to tenth, to ultimately relegation.
In May 2009, London Irish reached the Premiership final, and despite losing out 10-9 to a strong Leicester side, the Irish fans stayed long after the final whistle to applaud their team’s effort.
The team that day included Delon and Steffon Armitage, Sailosi Tagicakibau, Mike Catt and Paul Hodgson. All these players were top quality, yet they failed to win a Premiership title because they lacked the ruthless edge needed to beat clinical sides like Leicester. Soon, the Armitages were sick of being in the latter half of the Premiership, and pursued options across the channel.
Seven years on, and London Irish’s relegation was confirmed against London rivals Harlequins. Frankly, The Exiles deserved to go down; their rugby simply wasn’t to the standard that top flight teams should be competing at.
One of the key factors in the relegation was the inability to keep key academy players. England internationals Marland Yarde, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Alex Corbisiero all left the club for much the same reasons as the Armitages – international recognition wouldn’t come their way at a club in the lower end of the top flight.
London Irish’s Under 18 squad won the league title during the 2015/16 season, and this should give The Exiles’ faithful fans hope. As Bob Casey told ESPN, ‘London Irish had the best academy in England, and now they have it again.’
The likes of Theo Brophy-Clews and Johnny Williams were both regular starters for Irish last season, despite their tender ages of below 20, and this should give both Irish’s England junior international duo as well as other academy products precious chances to start senior games.
Over the summer, London Irish appear to have both re-strengthened and retained well. Additions to the back line such as Super Rugby winner James Marshall and former Leicester fly half Tommy Bell will likely provide attacking nouse to a back line which previously lacked confidence, whereas Sebastien de Chaves and George Robson will bolster the second row. Double World Cup winning All Black Ben Franks has stayed on in the front row, whilst Scottish International Blair Cowan will remain at the back of the scrum. All this added experience should prove vital should London Irish reach the all-important play offs at the end of the year.
Arguably, Brendan Venter has been the key acquisition over the summer. Irish fans of old will remember Venter inspiring the Irish side to their first, and so far only, major trophy – The Powergen Cup. In a Q&A with season ticket holders, the South African said that this London Irish side is more talented than the Saracens team he took to the top seven years ago.
Seven years on from London Irish’s Twickenham heartbreak, a different kind of heartbreak occurred, and a trio of starters from that agonizing defeat to Leicester have joined The Exiles’ First Team coaching staff, while Bob Casey continues in his role as CEO. Nick Kennedy becomes Director of Rugby, while Paul Hodgson takes up a role as Skills Coach, and Dec Danaher returns as Defence Coach. Last year’s respected club captain George Skivington converts from player to Forwards Coach.
In the first two rounds of the Greene King IPA Championship, London Irish have shipped just 12 points, which will please Kennedy and Venter especially, as defence remains a prevalent theme in his teams. Irish opened the season with a strong defensive display against the losing finalists of last year, Doncaster Knights. On a rainy day in Reading, The Exiles prevailed 19-0. A week later, newly promoted Richmond travelled to the Madejski for a local derby, where Irish once again came through, again on a rainy September afternoon. The fully amateur visitors produced a spirited display against much stronger opposition, but London Irish managed to come through 36-12. Out of 10 possible points this season, The Exiles have picked up 9, and top the table after 2/22 rounds.
A testing start to the year awaits Irish, but ultimately, however well they play in the normal season, success this year will be based on the result of two, hopefully four, unpredictably weathered fixtures – the play offs.
The play offs remain one of rugby’s great lotteries, two legs, home and away, first plays fourth, second plays third. A team that’s been largely outclassed over the course of the season can end up gaining a place in the Aviva Premiership, if they can convince Lady Luck to stay on their side.
So can London Irish bounce straight back up to the elite division? It is hard to look past them, with a team consisting of World Cup and Super Rugby winning New Zealanders, England and Scottish Internationals, and Premiership quality around the park. Despite this, the nature of The Championship means all you need is a rainy night in the play offs, some bad luck coupled with bad form, and it’s all over.
Even if London Irish do win promotion, staying in the Aviva Premiership is a completely different task. Irish need to find their own identity, as well as conjuring up a ruthless streak they lacked during the horror of 2015/16. They can no longer be brave London Irish; they need to be clinical London Irish. They want the rest of the Aviva Premiership to hate travelling South to the Madejski Stadium. Frankly, everyone at the club is sick of being everyone’s second favourite team, and want to become a nightmare to play against.
Should The Exiles fail to rebound straight back to the top tier, it seems likely that one of the most prestigious rugby clubs in England could go down the path of Rosslyn Park and many others before them. When relegation from the elite level occurs, clubs are given a 12-month parachute payment to make up for the loss of earnings. If London Irish don’t get promoted this season, it is unlikely they ever will unless they stumble across a wealthy owner. The loss of the parachute payment would mean the likes of Blair Cowan, Ben Franks and Alex Lewington would almost definitely have to go, aswell as countless others, such is the struggle of professional rugby at a lower level. Without these key men, the future is bleak for a club with such a bright history.
London Irish unquestionably have the class for promotion, but the key question is, can they regain the confidence they lost so tragically last season? Big games will need to be won, and the only nagging doubt is whether the men in green can find the edge they obviously lacked, and reign victorious. Promotion would be a hard fought triumph that the loyal Exile fans, and everybody at this great club so dearly deserve.