Stakes rise as Ex­iles close in on pro­mo­tion

Lon­don Ir­ish can’t af­ford to fail in their bid to re­turn to the Premier­ship at the first at­tempt

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - PAUL REES

LON­DON Ir­ish have spent all sea­son pre­par­ing for to­day, when their league turns into a knock­out tour­na­ment. The Ex­iles, who are look­ing to re­turn to the Premier­ship at the first at­tempt, are at Don­caster for the first leg of their Cham­pi­onship semi-fi­nal play-off.

The team in Ir­ish’s po­si­tion at the top of the ta­ble at the end of next sea­son will be au­to­mat­i­cally pro­moted, pro­vided they meet the Premier­ship’s en­try cri­te­ria — a costly tan­gling with red tape Don­caster did not bother them­selves with, hav­ing worked out that the cost of up­dat­ing their ground on top of com­pet­ing with clubs who spent £8m a year on player wages would see them fol­low Lon­don Welsh into in­sol­vency.

Ir­ish and York­shire Carnegie are the only two of four play-off clubs to meet the en­try cri­te­ria, with Eal­ing Trail­find­ers not yet pre­pared for the top flight. Should one of the pro­motable pair suc­ceed, then the team that fail will have Bris­tol to con­tend with next sea­son.

For Ir­ish, who had a one-off para­chute pay­ment of some £2m a year ago, the fi­nan­cial implications of not go­ing up would be stark given the costs of their train­ing ground, var­i­ous de­part­ments and an academy that is re­garded as one of the best in the coun­try. The Ex­iles won 19 of their 20 reg­u­lar-sea­son games.

“All our fo­cus is on the two matches against Don­caster,” says Ir­ish’s di­rec­tor of rugby, Nick Kennedy, the for­mer Eng­land lock. “We will think about the fu­ture after that. Ev­ery­thing we have done this sea­son has been geared to the play­ers peak­ing now and ev­ery­one has played fewer min­utes than last sea­son be­cause we have ro­tated so much.

“We want to be the fresh­est team go­ing into the play-offs. The guys are in great shape and get­ting their per­sonal bests in the gym now. It will be tense with the stakes high but we have been plan­ning for this for nine months. I have spo­ken at length to Andy Robin­son and Dean Ryan [who coached Bris­tol and Worces­ter, re­spec­tively, to suc­cess in Cham­pi­onship play-offs]. We played Don­caster two weeks ago but they rested some of their lead­ing play­ers.”

A decade ago Ir­ish were tilt­ing at the Premier­ship ti­tle. They fin­ished in the top four three times in six sea­sons and in 2009 were beaten by Le­ices­ter by a point in the fi­nal, a year after they had reached a Euro­pean Cup semi-fi­nal, los­ing 21-15 to Toulouse at Twick­en­ham. They were well rep­re­sented in the Eng­land squad with Kennedy, the Ar­mitage broth­ers, Shane Ger­aghty, David Paice, Topsy Ojo and Alex Cor­bisiero win­ning full caps, later joined by Mar­land Yarde, Jonathan Joseph and An­thony Wat­son, all prod­ucts of the academy.

After they fin­ished third in 2011 fi­nan­cial prob­lems took hold at a club that did not own its own ground.

“A few sea­sons ago we were un­der­funded,” says Kennedy. “By 2013 the money we had was in­vested on the pitch, which took it away from other de­part­ments. We lost play­ers be­cause aspir­ing in­ter­na­tion­als like JJ, Mar­land and An­thony want the best strength and con­di­tion­ing and med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties. We have not lost a kid from our academy for the last three years and we want to get pro­moted and build from here.”

Kennedy, among oth­ers, turned round the academy. “I am a big be­liever in the academy sys­tem and we have some ex­cit­ing tal­ent com­ing through,” he says. “My only con­cern is that it be­comes a race to the bot­tom, as in foot­ball, with teams try­ing to sign play­ers at a younger and younger age. I like the county bound­aries — we have just taken over Mid­dle­sex from Wasps [now in Coven­try], which has in­creased our academy by 40 per cent — and I hope clubs stick to them.

“We be­lieve you have to play rugby to get bet­ter. When I was com­ing through, some guys would not play a game for two years, while oth­ers would turn up at a loan club in a Mercedes think­ing they de­served a game. We make our boys train with us in the day and their loan sides on two nights a week. They need to earn their start­ing spot and learn to be­come part of a team. Play­ing is so im­por­tant be­cause at that age you have to find out the hard way.”

There was an­guish last sea­son when Ir­ish’s rel­e­ga­tion was con­firmed. It meant job cuts and a pe­riod of un­cer­tainty but a year away from the Premier­ship worked for Harlequins and Northamp­ton in the 2000s, both mak­ing an im­me­di­ate re­turn and win­ning the ti­tle within seven years.

“We will have to wait a few years to see if rel­e­ga­tion has had any ben­e­fit,” says Kennedy. “It has been good to change los­ing habits and it is eas­ier to work on your en­vi­ron­ment when you are win­ning. We have been able to blood young play­ers but we just want to get up and re­ward our sup­port­ers, who have been un­be­liev­able this sea­son.”

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