London Irish’s promotion back to the Gallagher Premiership was confirmed recently, and with Bristol’s survival more than guaranteed over Round 20, the recent yo-yoing between the two clubs has ended. If the Exiles can survive next season it will be the first time back-to-back promoted teams have stayed up since Exeter and Worcester in 2010-2012.
Last Word on Rugby takes a look at the English second division and the new champions who will compete in the Gallagher Premiership next season.
London Irish seal inevitable promotion to Gallagher Premiership
The luck of the draw saw London Irish vs Ealing Trailfinders pinned as the final match of the Championship season; a clash of the likely top two. So it proved, but Irish had sealed promotion a week earlier over relegated Richmond. Ealing have been the nearest challengers in the previous two seasons but were still comprehensively beaten by a weakened Irish team, 33-12. The Trailfinders have a third opportunity to prove themselves in the Championship Cup Final next week but Irish are odds on to win the double.
The Exiles recorded 20 wins out of 22 and collected 18 try bonus points along the way. Ultimately they finished with 99 points, 13 more than the Trailfinders. Of course, no-one is surprised by this. A squad with plenty of Premiership experience, that was enhanced throughout the season with further additions like Irish international Ian Keatley, should not struggle in this division.
Highlights included a 72-5 win over Yorkshire Carnegie, A 35-7 win away at Cornish Pirates and that opening day 20-7 win at the home of Ealing.
The state of the Green King IPA Championship
The debate on promotion and relegation is forever ongoing so won’t be elaborated on again here. But it is clear that currently the Championship is a holding pen for the relegated Premiership team. However well Ealing or the chasing pack do it is nowhere near enough to challenge for promotion, let alone compete in the Premiership.
And there it is in all its glory – the final table of the 2018-19 #ChampRugby season ?
Champions @LiRFC finish just shy of the 100-point mark in what has been an utterly absorbing campaign ?
Has it been a season to remember for your club? pic.twitter.com/Dq2bmDKQFx
— GK IPA Championship (@Champrugby) April 27, 2019
The final Championship table shows a 40 point gap from first to fifth, with a very competitive third to tenth ‘middle division. Whilst this pattern actually mirrors the Premiership table fairly closely, it’s the gap from the top that is most concerning for the division.
Again, like the Premiership, the battle at the bottom was more enthralling than at the top. A terrible start to the season by Yorkshire Carnegie saw the former Heineken Cup participants in danger of slipping into the third tier. Towards the end of the season it was Hartpury and Richmond fighting to survive. The Gloucestershire side prevailed with impressive wins over Jersey Reds, Nottingham and Bedford Blues to condemn the Londoners to the third tier.
Big names coming in for London Irish
You could infer from London Irish’s recruitment to date that they are following the Bristol model of high-profile signings. Most notably British and Irish Lion Sean O’Brien will swap the blue of Leinster for the green of the Exiles.
✍️ London Irish can confirm the signing of Sean O'Brien, who will join the club in December 2019. Read more ? https://t.co/ja7NSoJ4eV
— London Irish (@LiRFC) February 11, 2019
He will line up alongside a host of Wallaby internationals including scrum half Nick Phipps, Curtis Rona and Saia Fainga’a. More international experience will arrive in the form of Paddy Jackson and Allan Dell to complement existing old-heads like Luke McLean, Motu Matu’u and TJ Ioane.
Arguably this will be an even more star-studded lineup than that at Bristol. And despite Nick Kennedy’s potential as a Director Rugby, the experience of Declan Kidney and Les Kiss will surely give them a better chance of survival than in 2017/18.
It’s worth noting here that the removal of the Championship play-offs has given the leading club the ability to assemble a squad capable of competing in the Premiership. London Irish can prove this season wasn’t just down to Bristol’s wealth.
Another thrilling relegation battle in store?
As this season’s Premiership has shown almost no-one is safe by right – Leicester Tigers are still mathematically in danger with two games left. Worcester always seem to have the know-how to survive every year. Bristol and Pat Lam were always looking at more than just survival even this year. So a resurgent London Irish could cause another established club to face the unthinkable.
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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images