Having been relegated only just a season earlier, London Irish were promoted straight back to the Aviva Premiership at the first time of asking. Their secret to success? Going back to their roots.
A coaching core of Brendan Venter, Nick Kennedy, Paul Hodgson, Declan Danaher and George Skivington; all former players, performed admirably as Irish bounced back-up. It always looked probable, as Last Word on Rugby wrote in November (London Irish Return Appears Likely).
Congratulations need to be offered, and here is a season ticket holder’s account of a successful season in the Greene King IPA Championship.
Early Season Blues? No chance.
After a strong pre-season with a 100% record, winning against Premiership local rivals Harlequins, Nottingham and Loughborough University, London Irish went in to their first game with a huge amount of confidence under their new stewardship.
Doncaster Knights travelled to the Madejski for the first round of the season, and Irish knew it would be a tough test against the beaten finalists of the 2015/16 campaign. Tries from Aseli Tikoirotuma and academy graduate Tom Fowlie meant Irish ran out 19-0 winners. It was a convincing victory.
After the game, Brendan Venter spoke to the loyal supporters inside the Madejski. Venter said that ‘the first thing he did when he arrived at Hazlewood was set up a strong set of values with Nick Kennedy’. They decided on positivity first and foremost, and also chose to set about becoming a hard team to play against – being a team that will destroy you if you take your foot off the pedal.
The main issue with London Irish at the beginning of the season was that ‘the confidence was gone’ said Venter, who also stated that the ‘current crop of Exiles is stronger’ than the team Venter took to the title at Saracens seven years ago. His key message was that ‘London Irish can become GREAT’.
After a strong victory against Championship new boys Richmond, the men in green traveled to Bedford. Without a victory away from home for over a year, it was a vital step on Irish’s route to glory. Thanks to a brilliant late try from Max Northcote Green, the Exiles ran out 23-30 winners. It was a huge success.
First Blood Over London Scottish
After largely uneventful victories against Ealing, London Welsh and Nottingham, The Exiles made the short trip down the road to face London Scottish. An incredible try from young winger Joe Cokanasiga led the way for Irish, as they ran out 61-21 over their Scottish counterparts. It was a phenomenal victory, one which set the tone for the top of the table clash against Yorkshire Carnegie which followed.
The win which ensued turned out to be a rout, but at times it was ugly. Braces from winger Ben Ransom and Kiwi James Marshall, coupled with a score from Aseli Tikoirotuma, meant it was far from the tight encounter which was expected. Irish had passed their first real test with aplomb.
The Mid-season Setback
But after their early season successes, Irish experienced a drop in form. Performances diminished, beating Richmond by just six, and Ealing by only one. ‘Venterball’, which had served the Exiles so well previously, was no longer applicable.
An abiding memory of this time for season ticket holders was a cross-field kick in their own 22, which was stolen by a Jersey winger, allowing the Reds back into the game. Despite a severe drop in performance, it wasn’t until late-March that Irish in-fact lost their first game – 15-11 to Jersey.
At the time, I thought the defeat was exactly what we needed to boost our promotion bid. It was highly unlikely that we would have played Jersey in the play-offs, and hence no significant psychological damage was caused.
Despite a defeat in the British and Irish Cup semi-finals to the same team a week later, the season finished largely blemish free, the highlight being an 82-3 drubbing of Rotherham Titans in the penultimate regular season game.
Nick Kennedy described it as “the longest pre-season ever”, and that’s how it felt as a supporter. The novelty of beating lesser teams 40-something at home soon wore off, and understandably, the Exiles’ fans were ready.
Armed with the traditional drums, I formed part of a large core that made their way up to Doncaster for the semi-final away leg. The match started slowly, but in the end we ran out 35-3 victors over the Knights. It was an accomplished performance – exactly the sort you need in the play offs.
An uneventful second leg victory (39-22) followed, and we would take our place in the final of the Championship. We were to play Yorkshire Carnegie. We’d beaten them three times already this season, but the play-offs were a completely different story.
Benefiting from the unknown quantity that is ‘no pressure’, Carnegie came out flying, taking a lead into the changing rooms at half time. Despite this, Irish eventually prevailed with an impressive second half performance, to travel back to Reading with an 11 point lead.
Two Game Play-Off System Leads to Huge Celebrations
It was a long week leading up to the final game, but Wednesday night soon came round. It was a tumultuous clash, however two tries just after half time from England hopeful Alex Lewington swung it in our favour.
Despite a memorable ending to the match, including a mass brawl that resulted in two red cards, and three other yellows for cynical offences, Irish won 55-48.
The celebrations that ensued were extraordinary – celebrations that I have to say the loyal Irish faithful deserve. They’ve driven around the country in their droves despite the lack of quality, and stood by their team when it’s been tough. This victory was for them.
London Irish Greene King IPA Championship Conclusions
Having spent a season in the league, I can now say the following things about the Championship:
- The play-offs are a good system. Our season would have been finished in March mathematically, but November theoretically. There were six teams in contention for glory until the final weekend, and that makes for a hugely interesting spectacle.
- The league does need help. There are too many teams that struggle financially, and struggle on the sporting field as a result. I can imagine a working system where Championship sides are paired up with their geographical Premiership counterparts, and they benefit from loan players, whereas the Premiership teams’ fringe players receive valuable game time.
- The best way to win the Championship is by backing your young players. It’s the perfect stage to help them develop.
What to Expect Next Season
Irish have recruited well for next season – stars such as Saia Fainga’a, Napolioni Nalaga and Gordon Reid, in positions where we need reinforcements the most. Plenty of naysayers have dismissed this spending as ‘London Welsh’ like (Welsh were promoted in 2014 and recruited 22 players, before succumbing to liquidation earlier this year), however I’d classify it as the polar opposite.
These recruitments will help to develop our young players – it’s hardly as if we’ve signed overseas players in positions where we have an abundance of academy promise.
All in all, it appears that combined with an academy that is flourishing once more, overseas spending should enable Irish to have the tools to compete next season. The key will be down to Venter, Kennedy and the rest of the Irish elite to help the squad gel.
“Main photo credit”