My first rugby game was London Irish against Harlequins. London Irish lost. Whilst London Wasps, the team I have repeatedly watched crush Irish, will always have my heart, I have become a regular attendee at London Irish games, and perhaps even a supporter. From that day nearly fifteen years ago until today I have seen everything from glorious, last second victory to bafflingly incompetent defeat. If I’m honest, as time has passed there has been an increased prevalence on the latter. Last season, after half a decade of remarkable escapology, they were finally relegated, and the first piece I ever wrote for the OxStu was on exactly that. But now, roughly nine months on, London Irish sit comfortably atop the second tier of English rugby, and have won eighteen straight games.
You might be wondering at this point why the wider rugby fan should care even a little, but you have to understand that London Irish are not a typical rugby club. First of all, they are almost entirely run by former players. ‘Big’ Bob Casey is currently acting as club CEO, with Nick Kennedy as the Director of Rugby, Declan Danaher as the forwards coach and George Skivington as the defence coach. All of these players are long-time Irish stalwarts and fan favourites. Beyond just that, there is a real family atmosphere at London Irish, one that is rarely seen at professional sporting events. To this day a not-insignificant portion of the crowd are Irish, and various Irish classics can be heard around the stadium. Though this practice has since stopped, in the first few games I attended people were employed to walk around the stands with kegs of Guinness on their backs, what more can you want from a sporting event?
Back on the field of play, Irish started the season promisingly. Not only were they winning games but they were doing so in an encouraging fashion. Historically, teams that have been relegated have resorted to beating teams with their superior athleticism and individual skills. Instead, starting with a 19-0 win on the opening weekend, Irish have taken things back to basics. Firstly, the coaches have managed to get the players to playing aggressive, high-tempo defence. As with the recent resurgence of English rugby on a national level, Irish try to stop the opponent first and foremost and then look to apply pressure through frustration. Skivington, the aforementioned defence coach, can often be seen shouting manically from the touch line in an attempt to keep the tempo high and the players focused. This might seem like a triviality but when you can regularly tackle players for a loss, you force opponents into mistakes due to frustration at their retreat. They are currently conceding five points fewer per game than any other team in the league, and much of what they have conceded has come in the dying minutes of blow-out wins.
London Irish are not a typical rugby club; they are almost entirely run by former players.
Of course, not conceding is fine at this level, but should they wish to compete when they likely reach the next level they will need to be able to score as well. Luckily, Irish are also scoring nearly seven points more per game than any other team. Much of their early success, and the basis of their attack to this point, has come from the scrum. Whilst their back line is quite different from the one they had a season ago, they have managed to keep much of their pack. David Paice, who has now played over 250 games for London Irish, centres a dominant front row. Blair Cowan, another long-time Irish player leads a dependable back row. These two groups have engineered one of the most dominant maul attacks in English rugby. I recently took an American friend to watch a London Irish game, his first game of rugby, which consisted almost entirely of twenty-five yard driving maul tries. As a classicist he described the game as “Homeric”, and whilst I can’t claim to fully understand what that means it does sound somewhat apt.
Whilst driving mauls might excite the rugby purist, what really gets people on their feet is sexy back play, and boy do Irish deliver there. Tommy Bell is currently comfortably leading the league in points, an even more impressive feat when you factor in the fact that Irish have rested him for several games and that he has been asked to play multiple positions. Not only can he kick from anywhere in the opponent’s half (as well as a decent chunk of his own) but he is a good defensive full-back and can make things happen with the ball in hand. Oh, and he is one of the best touch kickers playing rugby today, at any level. Not bad for a player who has only recently turned twenty-four. Surround a player like with other talented players and you have the making of a team that should be able to compete at the highest level. And wouldn’t you know, London Irish have done just that!
Standing at six foot four and nearly seventeen stone, Cokanasiga is a mountain of a man. He could comfortably be mistaken as a lock who has somehow got confused and lined-up as a winger by mistake.
Despite being relegated last season, London Irish’s academy team were national champions. One star of that side was England U20 fly-half Theo Brophy-Clews, an whilst he has missed almost all of this season due to injury, he is now healthy and looking to regain his starting position for next season. Add to that you talents like Alex Lewington (who was on the fringes of the England squad prior to an injury last year) and Fiji international Aseli Tikoirotuma and have make a genuinely frightening back line. Oh, and that is before you even count in the man that is Joe Cokanasiga.
Like Brophy-Clews, Cokanasiga is just nineteen years old, and is also an England U20 player but apart from that he is almost beyond comparison. Standing at six foot four and nearly seventeen stone, Cokanasiga is a mountain of a man. He could comfortably be mistaken as a lock who has somehow got confused and lined-up as a winger by mistake. Not since a young Paul Sackey has a winger run with such a combination of speed and power. Whilst he often requires a small army of opponents to bring him to the ground, he also has the pace to outrun defenders. Combine these traits with nifty hand fakes and deft passing and you could well be mistaken for thinking that Jonah Lomu was standing out there on the field. Comparing him to arguably the best rugby player in history might seem a bit extreme, but can you think of many other seventeen stone wingers?
Ok, so I might be getting a little carried away. Irish do still need to finish out the season in the top four to get to the play-offs, and then turn their dominance into wins when it really matters. Add to that their continuing success in the British and Irish Cup and there is still plenty to look forward to for Irish fans. If you feel bored one weekend, it’s a short trip to Reading by train and a ticket will get you change from a twenty. There are far worse ways to spend an afternoon, and it might even allow you to briefly forget that Trump is president. It has been said that winning isn’t as sweet until you have experienced the pain of losing. And finally, after an awful lot of pain, it’s just really nice to watch Irish winning.