On May 3rd 2016, London Irish were relegated to the second division of English rugby for the first time, ending a 19 year stay in the top flight. This season, however, the tide has changed for The Exiles, as they’re dominating the Championship after 7 games. Josh Bartholomew reports on the turnaround, and the challenges ahead.
Irish had traditionally been the perennial team in English rugby’s top flight, before suffering relegation in the horror show of a season that was 2015/16. The disastrous statistic that is just 16 points gained out of a possible 110 is emphasised by this season’s return: 34 points out of a possible 35.
This season has begun as promisingly as the 28-12 victory over London rivals Harlequins in pre-season suggested it may, with 9 wins on the trot. Newly baptised Director of Rugby Nick Kennedy couldn’t have asked for a more productive beginning, however his, as well as the whole team’s, success this season will be judged on the result in four midweek May games – the playoffs.
In the Championship, the top four teams from the regular season play against each other, home and away. The score over the course of both games is collected in an aggregate collection of points. The team finishing higher in the regular season is given the advantage of choosing whether to play their home game first or second. The playoffs traditionally produce exciting, high-scoring games, with the team playing at home first eager to gain a considerable points advantage heading into the deciding game.
The playoffs have traditionally failed to produce the team most worthy of promotion, shown by Bristol’s unsuccessful attempts to gain promotion on three different occasions, despite topping the league each time. In two of these seasons, the team who beat them to promotion, in these cases London Welsh, were relegated just a season after moving into the top flight.
One of the many criticisms of the playoffs is that it is increasingly difficult to recruit players, with moving Premiership stalwarts having agreed terms months before the conclusion of the Championship.
This is where teams like Bristol and London Welsh come into trouble, as their style is to build a team capable of winning promotion. On the other hand, teams such as Worcester and London Irish attempt to create a team worthy of becoming a strong Premiership team. These differing approaches are highlighted by Bristol’s return in the top flight so far – just 1 point from 7 games.
The Championship Approach
Irish’s approach so far has been vindicated by their stunning early form, but what has been even more pleasing is the opportunities awarded to young academy players. The likes of Ross Neal, Joe Cokanasiga and Tom Parton have all started games this year, giving them a good chance to develop the skills required to operate at the highest level, without the constant pressure and scrutiny of top tier rugby.
Perhaps the pivotal moment in The Exiles’ turn-around in fortunes was the 23-30 victory in Bedford. Irish hadn’t won a game away from home in over a year, and Bedford is a notoriously difficult place to travel to. Irish went 11-3 behind, however bounced back with tries from Johnny Williams and Topsy Ojo, as well as a brace from fly half Tommy Bell ensured Irish made the trip back down South with all 5 points. It gave the squad huge confidence heading into tough games against Ealing, Nottingham and London Welsh. Had Irish failed to come away from the Midlands with a victory, confidence would’ve fallen and a team who could well be Irish’s opponents in the semi-finals would have drawn first blood.
Will London Irish Return to the Premiership?
Having seen 12 games under Kennedy and Venter’s respective leadership and tactical nouse, some conclusions can be drawn. Irish will play a defensively dominant, ruthless style of rugby, but more importantly a winning one. At times, it won’t be pretty, but the loyal Exiles fans have had their seasons of pain. Now, it’s time for winning.