The changing face of the Exiles
July 9, 2014
London Irish fans have had little to cheer for over the past couple of years but they are making huge changes to ensure that is no longer the case © Getty Images
They are doing things a little bit differently at London Irish this season. They have a new £12m training complex in Hazelwood - just minutes up the road from their traditional Sunbury base - the owners are getting their feet firmly under the table from the start of a campaign for the first time and they have a new-look pack. They have also changed which hill they run up in pre-season.
For the past few years, London Irish's pre-season programme has included a gruelling session in Richmond Park. The players have traditionally been put through their paces on one specific incline but the club's new addition to their strength and conditioning team Steve Walsh, who was head of athletic performance at Toulon, decided to pick a different hill close to the Roehampton Gate side of the park.
Little tweaks like that which fit into the club's hugely altered off-field configuration are all part of the London Irish master plan. Two seasons ago, they saw a number of their academy graduates such as Matt Garvey, Jamie Gibson, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph leave for pastures new, it hurt the club. The past summer saw Marland Yarde up sticks and move further down the 290 bus route to Harlequins' Twickenham Stoop base and that opened up old wounds but the club have now put in building blocks to prevent such a repeat.
One key cog in that is the new training complex, but they have brought back former London Irish favourites Nick Kennedy and Paul Hodgson to spearhead their academy under club legend Declan Danaher.
"Those things don't happen overnight, you see them coming," London Irish director of rugby Brian Smith told ESPN. "We've gone through that process and it is painful when you lose quality players and particularly when you've produced them and you've backed them. Things happen pretty quickly in sport and in life and when one bloke steps aside, often someone else emerges quickly.
"The new owners have got their feet under the desk and they are clearly looking to build for the future. Getting Nick Kennedy, Paul Hodgson and Declan Danaher involved in the academy is great and if they put three or so years of hard graft into the academy you will see young boys coming through and making their dent in the senior squad. That's the vision of Phil Cusack and Mick Crossan and that's a smart thing to do - invest in the academy coaches and kids and grow the club for the future."
While long-term goals of a self-sustainable team are perhaps two or three seasons off, Smith's inter-season recruitment largely focused on the pack. While London Irish have previously had a reputation for fleet-footed backs and an expansive game, Smith wants his team to be able to thrash out matches in the grim winter conditions while also out-pacing opponents in the summer. To that end, Smith bolstered his back-row options with Luke Narraway arriving from Perpignan but his main focus in the recruitment drive was in the tight five.
"The big teams in the league and in Europe are very strong in the forwards so if you lose a starting tight-head the back-up is as good," Smith said. "That requires a sizeable investment. The smaller squads, or those on smaller budgets, have good starting XVs but the one place you can't fudge quality is in the tight-five.
"You pay for what you get there. That quality is a valuable commodity. Whether it's the French league or ours, there is a mad scramble for quality tight-five players and sometimes you get lucky and produce your own.
"There are things you can control, things like talent spotting. We're happy with the tight-heads we have in our squad this season. Halani Aulika is back from the big injury he suffered last season so he will be like a new recruit and Geoff Cross did well against South Africa for Scotland and we also have Leo Halavatu and Jamie Hagan so we're happy there. We've also reinforced the rest of the tight-five bringing in guys like Tom Court, Dan Leo and Sean Cox. We've invested strongly there."
Brian Smith stands alongside the Premiership trophy © Getty Images
Away from that he also has the unenviable task of replacing both Yarde and James O'Connor, who joined the team on a short-term deal last season. Smith is hopeful of bringing in another such O'Connor-esque signing for the 2014-15 campaign but he is happy with his options on the wing.
"We're really happy with what we've done in the back three. James Short is doing well in training and we signed Alex Lewington and Andy Fenby and we've also produced a great young kid Tom Fowlie. So how do you replace James O'Connor? Well you probably don't but someone else will step forward. Tom Homer missed much of last season so he's like a new signing and we're happy with the balance there."
Rugby as a sport has plenty of Sliding Doors moments. For London Irish theirs probably came in the 2008-09 season when they fell 10-9 to Leicester in the final of the Premiership. Homer was on the bench that day as a newly-turned 19-year-old and since then, he has seen the club fail to finish above sixth in the Premiership.
That' run of mediocrity is what Smith is charged with changing over the coming couple of years.They no longer want to be in a position where their players believe a move elsewhere in the Premiership is a case of the grass being greener and that's why all the off-field work is so important. They are likely to really the see the benefits of that in two or three years time but for Smith the immediate focus is Harlequins on September 6 and the following 21 matches.
"For this season, well it's a bit like a doughnut really. To be able to win something at the end, you have to be able to play, to get a good start you've got to play in the good conditions but in the depth of winter you have to grind it out. That's the exciting thing about this season, you have got to have an all-court game.
"We look at each competition and internally we'll be making our goals for each but every team wants to be at the top table in Europe. Call that top six or top seven, that's where you want to be and we are no different than any other club in that regard.
"If we get the basics right and get a good set piece platform with a rock solid defence then we give ourselves a chance to climb up the log. I think in a couple of seasons London Irish can be a genuine force and contenders for the Premiership."
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Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.