As London Irish begin a return to their core values backed by a consortium of Irish businessmen, Matt Cassidy considers The Exiles’ future.
“Na Gael Londain, mo chuisle” is written on the walls, The Fields of Athenry rings out round the stadium on match days and their mascot, Digger, is an Irish wolfhound. London Irish is an English club with an Irish mentality.
The Exiles were founded in 1898 for the young Irishmen of London and were modelled on London Welsh and London Scottish. Many Irish internationals have played for the Reading-based club over the years such as Conor O’ Shea, David Humphreys and Simon Geoghegan. With the dawn of professionalism, a combination of Irish players staying in Ireland to ply their trade and an Academy geared towards producing English players, the numbers of Irishmen playing for the club fell. The attendances, combined with poor results on the field, have dropped as the Irish community in London have become disillusioned with the lack of Irish representatives in the squad. London Irish has become an English team with a “Plastic Paddy” image.
However, The Exiles are soon to reconnect with their roots; the club has been taken over by a consortium of Irish businessmen who want to return the club to the glory days with a team built around an Irish core. This development raises two questions: should London Irish be promoting Irish players over English players? Also, will the IRFU grab a golden opportunity to increase links with the Exiles and give young Irish players a chance to play regular, competitive rugby?
Although London Irish has a rich Irish heritage it is an English rugby club and competes in the English Premiership. It would be understandable if the RFU and Premier Rugby were not thrilled with one of their clubs promoting what they would see as foreign talent over indigenous players. A counter-argument to this is that the RFU loads the national team with South Africans and South Sea Islanders and then have the temerity to call it the English national team. So can they really argue about the Reading club blocking the development of English players? The stronger argument is that the owners pay the wages and therefore have the right to fill their team with Martians if they so wish.
The question of the IRFU’s response is more important for Ireland’s rugby fans. With the owners’ willingness to sign Irish players the IRFU have been handed the opportunity to create a fifth province. The union could set up an agreement with the Exiles to loan out young players who are struggling to get any game time at the provinces, thus freeing up funds for Irish internationals like Sean O’Brien to be kept on the island. However, it remains to be seen if the IRFU seizes the moment.
It was not that long ago that London Irish were competing in a Premiership final and a Heineken Cup Semi- final. Since then the big days out have been few and far between. However, with the club in a solid financial state and a return to old values, the Exiles might be returning to those heady days. The first objective is to avoid relegation this season, which reminds us of the seanfhocal “De réir a chéile a thógtar na caisleáin.”
Pundit Arena, Matt Cassidy.