London Irish were relegated last week for the first time in the professional era.
Irish’s loss to Newcastle felt like the upswing of the axe before the final blow of relegation to the Championship, but the fat lady was in full voice last weekend after their loss to Harlequins.
London Irish have never been out of the top flight since the game went professional over 20 years ago and although derided by many for their lack of both ‘Londoness’ and ‘Irishness’, they will be missed more than those detractors realise.
Before the start of the season Irish were full of pre-season expectations.
Within the last ten years they have reached a European Cup semi-final and lost the Premiership final by a point. Coaching changes and the pilfering of their best young talent started a rot which began long before this season. The current campaign though was meant to be different.
Tom Coventry’s arrival after plenty of success as an assistant with the Chiefs, to a sparkling new training facility at Hazelwood, combined with the recruitment of Ben Franks, Sean Maitland and Matt Symons were meant to all indicate an upward curve for Irish after years of concern on the field in terms of league position and financially off it.
Coventry’s ambition for Irish to play like a New Zealand side shouldn’t be faulted but the realisation came too late that their style was a little loose for the Premiership’s claustrophobic battles each week.
Their lack of execution has been painful, no more so than in the two away losses to Worcester and Newcastle when they created more than enough chances to win both matches only to finish try-less on both occasions.
That’s been the reason for their downfall in this fight to survive, more than Irish’s porous defence. There has been no shortage of ambition or creativity – the final pass has just rarely stuck.
London Irish will soon realise there is no time to dwell on those moments, as they put a contingency plan into action to prepare for life in the Championship.
Franks, along with Maitland and perhaps promising back Alex Lewington, all appear set to move on and there will be some doubts over whether new signings like James Marshall (Hurricanes), Tommy Bell (Leicester) and Mike Coman (Edinburgh) have escape clauses within their contracts ready to be activated.
Is the Championship really the place for the club to undergo a magical rebirth? Not based on recent seasons, where those coming up to the Premiership have had to scrap their way to promotion. Northampton’s rise to the top came close to ten years ago.
London Irish are far from a club in freefall when you look at their training base and remember that the academy has come off life support in the last two years.
Theo Brophy Clews and Johnny Williams, the young fly-half and centre, have provided rare optimism with performances of promise despite being thrust into the fire of a relegation dogfight – so much so that Williams should be considered as one of the Premiership’s best young players of the season alongside Harry Thacker.
It’s in him and the rest of the Exiles’ young core that their supporters will now place their faith. They will certainly be favourites for promotion, without question.