A New Beginning for London Irish
This Sunday at a little after 4pm history will be made for London Irish as, after twenty years in the wilderness (or the Thames Valley if you prefer) they will finally, truly, return to London. Sure, the deal to play at the Brentford Community Stadium has been signed for some time now, but it only means so much until a game is actually played!
As we approach the second week of a league season that has started behind closed doors you might feel that the move would be a little anti-climactic for Irish, but every noise out of the club is positive and brimming with excitement. The players have had a chance to test out the ground in an inter-squad friendly and club staff have visited a couple of times to get a feel for the place too.
Les Kiss, head coach at Irish is just one of the positive voices at the club. “I only had a year or two at the Madejski and it was probably more ideal for the opposition to come there… they had a big dressing room and nice facilities. It wasn’t like that Leicester feel when you got o Welford Road and you feel cramped in the away dressing room! I won’t speak for history, I know the club had some good years there in the past, but Brentford is exciting. It’s been percolating away and we’re excited to get there!”
“Facilities don’t win you anything. “ he continues, “It’s important we keep our eyes on the dight here, Leicester played very well last week and that’s going to be the main challenge for us. Saying that, we have to recognise the work that’s gone into getting us there and appreciate that it’s a great opportunity for London Irish to put ourselves back onto the London market!”
Kiss talks openly about the club finding some nuances on the pitch, the way the wind blows through the stadium and all those little things that home teams come to take for granted at their grounds. Irish will hope to learn them quickly as they look to build and work their way up the Premiership Rugby table.
The excitement around the move is echoed by Ben Loader, the fleet-footed young winger is one of a number of young talents who give Irish fans hope for the future after their performances last season. “It feels like it’s been a long time coming” he says of the return to the capital. “Living in the area and driving past it regularly you see [the stadium] grow, so to get into it and last week to be able to train in it as well, it’s even better than we thought it would be!”
Of course the club are sharing the ground with Brentford FC, a similar situation to the one they’ve just left in Reading. One of the biggest complaints about the Madejski was that it never really felt like home for the London club. How does Ben think that will change in the new stadium? “Come matchday I think it will feel like our place. In our minds it’s our place and that’s what’s important. It feels like home so hopefully that will translate on the pitch!”.
Perhaps Loader’s best game last season came as part of a five try demolition of Leicester at the Madejski, so he’ll be hoping he can repeat that eye-catching performance.
A narrow loss away at Worcester in week one leaves Irish on the back-foot heading into this weekend’s game, but Kiss is somewhat positive. “I couldn’t fault the effort, maybe our accuracy and execution at times let us down… you’d probably hear the same from Worcester. This is the first time we’ve got a point against them since I’ve been here. You don’t accept the loss, but we did make some steps forward. I thought our defence was good in terms of our scramble, our record on our own try line was superb. We only made one entry into the opposition 22 which tells you a little bit about where we had to play the game but for only getting through once we got a seven point return. A lot of positives, but we didn’t do ourselves justice in the middle third [of the pitch], we missed some tackles which made us have to dig deep to save the tries we did save. On the other aisw we were a bit frivolous and inaccurate about how we exploited opportunities. We’ve been working on that today!”
This season is all about building momentum for London Irish. An opportunity to improve on set piece and to hone in on their skills to play the free-flowing game they want to roll out. When the game restarted they made the choice for some players to take time out, get surgery and recover. It was great experience for the younger members of the squad, but at the expense of fluidity. Two of the players who needed to get some work done, hulking Aussie lock Adam Coleman and lethal All Blacks wing Waisake Naholo, are yet to return but both are expected to run out before Christmas, with another experienced Wallaby second row, Rob Simmons also on his way and hoping to debut during the club’s European adventures.
In the meantime, as has always been the case for the Exiles, the club have leaned heavily on their academy. As well as Loader a number of players have stepped up into the first team as regulars over the last year. Ollie Hassell-Collins has been almost ever present on the wing opposite Loader, Ben Donnell has been marked as a star of the future in appearances across the back 5 of the pack and myriad other players have made it clear they are fighting for a spot in the 23.
With a new stadium to call home, one of the finest academies in the country, some experienced reinforcements on the horizon and the prospect of getting their fans back in the stands soon too the future looks bright in this green corner of London!