“We’re a growing side, I know there’s plenty of improvement in us” – The future looks bright for London Irish
2021 has been good to London Irish. Six games played, one loss, two draws (including an impressive fight back against Bristol) and a trio of wins have left rugby fans, writers and pundits reflecting on the Exiles’ place in the Gallagher Premiership hierarchy as they evolve from a team who everyone likes to one that opponents increasingly fear to line up against.
“I think the strength of our squad is key to that” centre Terrence Hepetema says, “In the past Irish have had a good team but maybe lacked a bit in depth. If you look at the young lads coming through… Ollie Hassell-Collins, Loader and Parton it shows their quality as they’re keeping guys out of the team.”
“They’re coming on nicely” Declan Kidney says of the young trio. “Ben hit 50 appearances in the last match and that experience is showing through. Tom had a big injury a couple of years ago in the Championship but he’s come back well from that and has shown good form this year. Working with Tom Homer has helped him with that. I can’t speak enough about how our senior players have helped. Having players who have been there and done it, and who the young lads look up to, they can get a lot out of that. So yes, they’re all progressing nicely but I think they are only at about 50% of where they can get to so there’s a lot of opportunity for growth too.”
It’s a valid point, the Irish back three would all merit their place in any team in the Prem with their mix of speed, guile and tenacity. Though the news that All Blacks flier Waisake Naholo is back running will please Exiles fans, he is going to have a tough job usurping one of these lads for a spot in the team.
Naholo has been a long-term injury absentee after an operation during lockdown that required some follow up work. He was joined in off season surgery by Adam Coleman who made a recent return only to hurt himself again by gamely continue charging down an errant ball and showing the determination of his team in the process. While he may have exacerbated the injury by continuing to chase down the ball it’s clear that Declan for one had nothing but admiration for the Wallaby lock’s drive.
Hepetema has had his own injury woes but is feeling good now. He’s enjoyed appearing off the bench – a new experience for him at London Irish – and feels the match sharpness, which no amount of training can replace, is back. He’s forged quite the relationship with Paddy Jackson at 10 and fits nicely into the approach the team are building, with Jackson and Nick Phipps playing the ball at high tempo. Terrence makes sure to credit the forwards for their work securing front foot ball for the team too.
“We’re a growing side, I know there’s plenty of improvement in us” Kidney says in reply to the suggestion that Irish should be pleased with their recent results. He doesn’t get too high after a win but doesn’t dwell too much on a loss…. Instead he looks at the path the club is on and their goal to be the best they can be in each game and he is satisfied they’re achieving that. The work Irish did last summer, ensuring their wider squad got plenty of game time under their belts, is paying off now as the likes of Ben Donnell and Matt Cornish seamlessly slot into the 23 when the opportunity arises for them.
It’s a rare London Irish press event these days where the form of Paddy Jackson isn’t mentioned, and it’s put to Declan that he’s playing like a top-class international fly-half at the moment. Kidney takes the question in his stride, but there’s a smile on his face as he replies. “Paddy’s a very good rugby player, but then we knew that. We wanted an out-half with experience and we both knew him, so we asked him to join us. He’s joined in and he’s not doing anything we didn’t expect him to be capable of. He is an international 10, he’s international quality and that’s not in dispute. There’s nothing he’s doing that I didn’t think he was capable of and there are still areas he can add to his bow too.”
There’s been something that’s been puzzling me a little as I’ve watched recent London Irish games and, with the media availability winding down, I get a chance to quiz Declan on it. Is there a reason, I ask, why Caolan Englefield is acting as water boy for the team, or was he just the first guy available? “Well spotted” Declan says, with a wry smile. “Caolan has a future! He’s having to bide his time, we have a couple of players like that. He has a good presence out on the pitch and he’s keen on doing it, so there’s a generosity to that too. Rory Brand has done it too, and by having your up and coming scrum halves out on the field they get somewhat used to the atmosphere. You want them involved as much as possible, so you look to involve them wherever possible.”
It’s another example of how London Irish look increasingly well provisioned for the future, building a standard now for the players coming through from the academy to aspire to!