In the aftermath of London Irish’s surprise opening weekend win, Josh Bartholomew visited the club’s training facility to meet with one of their current crop; Second Row Josh McNally.
I arrive at Hazelwood, London Irish’s plush training ground, to be greeted by the hubbub of an ongoing session. As the minutes pass, the atmosphere changes as a steady stream of players make their way through reception into the lunch hall.
The buoyant mood is palpable around the centre, each player chatting happily. But when you look further, as I had the chance to do with second-rower Josh McNally, there’s a certain steel that surrounds the players.
Previous Premiership Experience
McNally starts by talking about London Welsh’s dismal Premiership campaign in 2014/15 – “The year I had in the Premiership with Welsh was a bit of a whirlwind year for the team, and a steep learning curve for me personally.
“It’s easy to say ‘I played in the Premiership with London Welsh,’ but we were on the back end of heavy defeats, and the way we trained and played didn’t make it feel like a Tier 1 game. Now I’m here at Irish, we’re fully prepared going into every week. Last week felt like my real Premiership debut!”
McNally then ponders on his time at London Welsh, namely the fateful last few weeks when liquidation became a real prospect: “As a player at London Welsh we just tried to get on with our job and play to the best of our ability. It was only during the last few weeks of the clubs ‘lifespan’ as such that we found out how bad it really was.
“I was injured at the time so I never had to play in those circumstances, but lots of my friends were there and it was difficult for them to get mentally prepared for a game when they weren’t getting paid.”
On Signing for London Irish
Conversation then moves on to his transfer to London Irish in January 2017 and how the coaching team recruited him, saying that “As soon as Welsh went into administration I had a phone call from Nick Kennedy saying that if the worst did happen, he’d have me at Irish. When Welsh went under it was a dark day for everyone but there was a silver lining for me, as I started here the week after.
“Irish had been watching me for around a year and I was grateful for the move.”
I originally assumed that settling in mid-season would’ve been difficult but McNally assures me that this isn’t the case – “Coming into a team that was in the Championship already was easier as I had a greater knowledge to draw upon of the other Championship sides”. McNally played in that league during the 2015/16 season.
“All the Irish players were very good and welcoming. It was also handy having Lovejoy (Chawatama, signed from Welsh at the same time as McNally) as a friendly face. The main difficulty was the fact that I was injured at the time. I went straight into the physio room, which made it harder to gel with the players as I wasn’t out on the pitch with them, but I’ve been here nearly a year now and it’s been a great year!”
Exiles Coaching Team
McNally then tells me about his decision to join Irish: “Having Nick Kennedy and George Skivington on the coaching team was a key part in my decision, as I knew that this was probably the best coaching I could have got. Those guys have such experience that I know I can ask them anything in my position.
“I’ve learnt from them every day I’ve been here and I know that I’ll continue to do so throughout my time at Irish.”
He also credits the coaching team’s relative youth for part of their success: “When it comes to a training week, they know how we feel – when we’re tired and need a rest they’re able to sense it.
“When you have coaches who’ve been out of the game for a while it becomes harder for them to relate with us. Having such a young coaching team is something I feel will help us massively.”
London Irish’s Season
Our chat moves on to Irish’s remarkable victory at Twickenham in Round One. McNally and he says that the lack of outside belief spurred the team on: “We tried to shut out the criticism and the guys who gave us no chance but inside the camp we all knew that we could win at Twickenham. As long as we did what we could do and ‘controlled the controllables’ like we knew we could, we knew we’d be a tough team to beat.
“It was hard not to look at the criticism but that did spur us on knowing that no one gave us a chance. Getting those early tries was vital as it gave us that early belief and we managed to carry on and get the win which is huge for us.”
I ask McNally what constitutes a good season and he’s fairly insistent that results aren’t everything: “We’re on this journey that the coaching staff started building with us last season, we only want to go up now and we want to keep progressing as a unit next year and the year after.
“As a team we focus on the performances over the result, we’re not too focussed on where we are in the table, it’s more about where we are as a side. We’re looking mainly at the performances and effort levels. If they’re both good, then we’re happy.”
Life After Rugby for McNally
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask McNally (a serving airman in the Royal Airforce since 2009) what’s next after rugby? He says that “The RAF are very understanding of my rugby commitments. I have a good relationship with them, and they get how much time rugby takes up.
“The plan is definitely to go back to the RAF. I’ll play rugby for as long as I can but when I’m done, I know there’s a career waiting for me.”
Though a challenge remains ahead for London Irish, Josh McNally is certain that they can achieve great things in the Premiership.
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