The future is bright. The future is… Emerald!
With a perfect record of 16 wins from 16 games leading to their fourth promotion in as many seasons London Irish Emeralds – the women’s first 15 for London Irish Amateur RFC – have found their way into Championship 1, the top tier of the RFU women’s leagues and home to some of the most celebrated teams in the game. So how do they look back on last season and what does the future look like for them?
Over the past couple of months, I’ve spoken with a number of people around the club and one thing has been abundantly clear – that for all the partying once the league was won, this is a team laser focused on getting better and being in Champ 1 isn’t enough, they’re in it to win it!
Minutes after win number 16 we caught up with Head of On-Field Performance Graham Smith. The former England Women forwards coach is a hugely respected figure in the game and known for his honest assessments of performance.
“It’s gone very well. We’ve won 16 games from 16 and we’ve won the league so on the face of it it’s very good.” He told me.
“But I’ve said for a number of weeks that we’re not a good team yet. We’ve got some very good players who work very hard, but you don’t build a team in 12 months. There’s work to do to become a very good team, core skills to build, but we have a team here who work hard for each other. They did that today against a good team in Ivybridge who have very good coaches. That’s not just the 15, it’s the squad and the support staff, the strength of the team is in it’s weakest player because that player has to go on and perform.”
And perform they did, with every player having their moment to shine across the year and to reinforce the bond that Graham talked about. There’s a genuine sense around the team that everyone is pulling in the same direction.
“Winning trophies and leagues is great, but it’s really about the memories you create. You won’t remember the score line in 15 years, but they’ll sit down and have a drink with the players they played with… and that’s really important!”
The Emeralds are captained by Georgia Wood, a combative back row who leads by example with a prodigious work rate and never-say-die attitude. When we catch up over Zoom, she’s quick to talk up the quality of coaching received from Smith and also from former England 7s and 15s player Abi Chamberlain.
“I’d never have thought, joining this team, that I’d be coached by a former England coach and an England player! We’ve been spoilt by the coaches that have been brought in. There’s not a training session I leave where I’ve not picked up something new or had a good conversation about my development”
As captain, Georgia has her part to play in ensuring the club is a welcoming place and that the dressing room is a place where every player feels comfortable around their peers. “The club itself is massive on a family approach. It comes a bit from me as captain, but every player who walks through the door has that approach. It feels now, at the end of the season, like we’re one big family and when players join through the season, they feel that” she tells us.
“I really like that we had new players come in, it created the spark we needed at times to remind people they need to work for their shirt. If we didn’t have that we wouldn’t have done as well as we did this season.”
One of those who joined part way through the season was front row Amy Montague who joined us on the call and immediately reiterated the family nature of the team. “That was why I stayed. Everyone was lovely! It can be hard to find a team where you click with everyone so that was a massive part of it for me. I joined pretty late – just before Christmas – so I jumped on the back of a winning team!”
Wood and Montague have both spent time with Premier 15s teams in the past, Wasps and Harlequins respectively, so it was interesting to understand how they found themselves in the colours of a different West London team. For Georgia it came after stepping away from Wasps to focus on her studies. “I thought I’d take a step back and just play socially. Then these coaches are brought in, and I realise I’ll be playing at a high level again. It’s made me realise that no matter what I’m doing I want to make time to play rugby at a competitive level.”
“After leaving the Quins set up, I felt a bit lost.” Amy added. “I remember saying to Graham that I wasn’t sure I wanted to play rugby anymore. I wanted to be challenged mentally as well as physically. As soon as I came down to Irish everything clicked… there was that mentality right through the team.”
Both players are looking forward to next season, indeed at the time of writing the club have a 100% retention rate for players and coaches, giving them a really stable base to build from and a level of consistency they can use as a baseline, on top of the mentality that seems a core component of the Emerald identity.
That mentality starts right at the top of the club. The Emeralds director of rugby is Mary Fyfe, and a great deal of their success is down to her determination and passion to succeed. She’s fiercely protective of her team and passionate about Hazelwood Centre being home to some of the best women’s rugby around. It’s no surprise then that she’s also leading the bid for London Irish Women the elite team that aim to take a place in the Premier 15s in the near future.
It’s clear that for Mary the success of the Emeralds is an important pathway to the future success of London Irish Women in the Premier 15s. There’s a natural synergy, with the Emeralds providing a great way for players to develop while playing high quality rugby against teams like Reading Abbey or Richmond. They’re even adding a second team next season to increase the opportunity for women to get good game time.
The second part of that pathway comes from a partnership with St Mary’s University with the London Irish Women coaching team supplying the women’s rugby programme for the university. St Mary’s University are hosting the Emeralds for their pre-season training too. The university has proven itself a good development ground for rugby players, Georgia studied there as did Izzy Mayhew the Harlequins centre who so impressed in the 2021 Premier 15s final.
That pre-season activity has been underway for a few weeks now and has included some opportunities for interested players to trial with the club. “We started pre-season on the 21st of June. It seems quite early, but the off-season seems to grow shorter every year.” Mary tells us.
“There was a real sense last season that we came out of that competition the way we did because on balance we were fitter than most of the teams we met. In some cases where we should have lost from a skills point of view or by not taking opportunities what saw us through was our fitness. You can’t bank on that when you move up a level – you expect all the teams to be fitter than what we’ve seen in Championship 2. So, there was a consensus from the coaching team that we wanted to build on this and there was a real appetite from the players to get back into something that looked like a squad.
“We’re running pre-season at St Mary’s because we truly want to strengthen our education & sporting partnership. The Emeralds pre-season also offers St Mary’s players a proper pre-season, at least for players who can make it, as they don’t normally get started until the start of September and convene after freshers week.”
With LI Women making their expression of interest to take a place in the Allianz Premier 15s from the 2023/24 season onward this clear structure and pathway will be a key part of their presentation to show they will be an asset to the league and to the local community.
For Mary it’s also vital to show that the Emeralds are a force in Championship 1. With Leicester and Bath also pitching for places and also having affiliated teams performing at that level London Irish need to show they can not only survive but thrive against the likes of founding Premier 15s team Richmond.
“We’ve got to back ourselves” she tells us. “I can’t in one breath talk about a pathway to the Premier 15s and then settle for bottom third of the table in the next. We have to back ourselves to build and develop a pathway primed to develop Premier 15s quality players! It’s going to take a lot of strategy on our part, on field and off. The intention is there, the aspiration is there, and the people are largely there… we’d like to swell our coaching resource, not because what we have isn’t good enough but because we will be running a second team and I don’t want to overburden the coaches that are doing such a fantastic job!”
Mary goes on to say “London Irish is always a family affair, the Professional and Amateur Club, working to create a “no barriers “opportunity for women and girls to play rugby, at every level. Working together with a one for all and all for one mentality makes the Exile Nation stronger. A Professional Men’s Club, A Professional Women’s Club and a Community Amateur Club all supporting and being supported for the good of women’s rugby. It is the strength of this collaboration that London Irish Women will promote as they bid for a place in the 2023/24 Premier 15s.”
With Mary at the helm, with quality coaches and gifted players, women’s rugby remains bouyant and the future looks promising at London Irish! They’ve already got an impressive Emeralds squad and with a few key additions will be a force in Championship 1. We look forward to following their journey over the coming season and bringing you along too.