Our last Report of the season should not start with regrets at a loss, but with great joy. Great Joy is a lovely lady, and I am sure she’ll agree.
Twelve long months ago we missed out on relegation by a single point against our nemesis, Newcastle. Morale was low. Bob Casey briefly threatened to return to Ireland. Dec Danaher was rumoured to be joining Paul Sackey at Wasps. Tofty had retired and our scrum was creaking. The Gary Gold Hate Campaign was in full swing (not to mention his car in the Sunbury ditch) and Paul Hull’s regimented backs-coaching was producing regimented back-play, rugby by numbers. Let’s face it, we were in a sorry way, unable to score a try for love nor money, and seemingly incapable of bonding in the face of adversity. And that was just the players!
Now, a year later, we have finished third in the GP, and reached the final of the European Challenge Cup. Not only that but we put one over on Wasps in spectacular fashion on TV, and finished as the GP’s leading try scorers, with the best ‘away’ record of any GP team.
Just to add some icing to the cake, this team only started to assemble, let alone to gel, in mid-season, and a number of (younger) players have quite obviously not yet reached their full potential. The future looks exciting indeed, and has been achieved in half the time mentioned in Brian Smith’s two-year plan. Quite apart from the players, I put this fairly and squarely down to five people – although I could find reasons to extend the list to a whole load more.
Take a bow ...
and Toby Booth
have led the revolution in our play, giving our players confidence. The con trick they pulled on Kieron Roche to encourage him out of his shell has revealed the player we all hoped was there, but weren’t quite convinced about. Brian told the lads to play what they saw in front of them, and to believe in their own skills. Then he got them to practise, practise, practise those skills. Toby ran the military intelligence wing, devising ways of defending our line out and attacking the opposition’s. The boys didn’t always take their lessons onto the park, but in the main they did, with spectacular results. Our scrummaging improved no end as well, and alongside it, so did our rolling maul and our attendance at the breakdown. The latter may still need more work, but who said we were yet the finished article? It’s tough when you don’t have continuity, and messrs Rautenbach and Coetzee, on whom so much of our planning relied, seem to have been absent through injury for longer than they have been available.
My third man of the season is Mike Catt
, not so much for his admirable generalship on the field as for his conduct off it. His enthusiasm and his example showed younger men how to become model professionals. He backed his coaches all the way, too, revelling in the freedom they preached, and gave his own time to helping his younger colleagues to prosper in a demanding environment. This was leadership of the highest order, and helped bond the team quickly.
Behind the heavenly twins, that self-effacing man Peter ‘Dr Evil’ Harding
did things on the fitness front which brought tears to the eyes of some of our senior players. His new sand-pit at Sunbury ‘beasted’ our guys, and what sand couldn’t do, Polish ice did, pre-season. Stamina, explosive strength and low body fat became the norm. Without Peter’s efforts, the coaches might as well have gone to Butlins for the duration.
Then there is the medical side, the part we may not see as spectators, but which the players see - and appreciate - greatly. The old facilities were ripped out and replaced by up-to-the-minute equipment, occupying space previously given over to a players’ lounge, never to be seen again. The kitchens were ripped out too, and nutritionists brought on board. The superior work done by the medical and physio teams were in large measure responsible for some early recoveries from injury.
’s Academy went on producing the goods, and David Paice and Topsy Ojo both grabbed their chances and forced their way into the first team, let alone the squad, while still in the Academy. They follow in the footsteps of Nick Kennedy, Nils Mordt, Shane Geraghty, Delon Armitage and the departing Adrian Flavin, home-grown talent. Not a long way behind them, Academy products Richard Thorpe, Ross Laidlaw and latterly Tom Warren made brief forays into the side as well. What a factory!
The Players ...
On the playing front we went through periods of change in nearly all positions.
Mike Horak’s early injury left the door open for Delon Armitage and he grew into the full back role through the season, occasionally showing glimpses of the immaturity of youth, and on other occasions the exuberance of sheer genius. His tackling veered between downright courageous and non-existent. None of these things were down to lack of effort, so much as a lack of judgement and technique born of an equal lack of experience. He seems to have been around for a while, so we may forget that he is but young. He’ll learn! I have great faith.
On the wings we started with Scott Staniforth as a shoe-in, with Delon and Justin Bishop alternating on the other side. We finished with Sailosi Tagicakibau (who replaced Scott in the squad) and Topsy Ojo, two finishers of the highest quality, although some of their positioning has occasionally had me tearing my hair out. Dom Feau’nati got a game against Saints (away) but couldn’t get back in until his two cameo and highly effective appearances at 12 against Wasps and Leicester. Dominic Shabbo was the forgotten man as he battled through his career-threatening injury, unable to make a single appearance. My guess is that he’ll push hard for a starting place next year. My word, it’s tough at the top!
In the centre it was all-change throughout the season, quite a good thing if you want to be able to mix and match and take a long view, difficult if you want quickly to build understanding based on continuity and instinctively knowing each others’ play. Despite all the hype about our back play, this is one area of the team which never quite settled.
Catty as the Fat Controller (no he isn’t but it sounds right) was consistently placed at 12 for the first 90% of the season and then started appearing at 13 with Feau’nati and Flutey appearing at 12. Nils Mordt and Shane Geraghty both occasionally appeared at 12 and at 13, with Geraghty a semi-permanent bench replacement in many matches. Both looked good, but neither yet has the majesty of Mike Catt, the ability to change a game with brainpower and instinctive skill. Nils of course is now out until Christmas with an ACL injury.
Rodd Penney started the season at 13, where he looked fast and incisive in attack, although some had doubts about his hands, and others about his defence. By December, Paul Franze was getting games at 13, and Feau’nati also, but one had the impression at the time that neither had done enough to convince their coach that they were a shoe-in, although Paul scored a stunning solo try away against Agen, to win the game. It was little surprise when we learned in January that we were to be joined by another centre, the young Argentine international Gonzalo Tiesi, although the reasons may have had more to do with Franze’s sudden disappearance to Rugby League.
From the moment he first appeared, the deceptively slight Tiesi looked sheer class, both in attack and defence. There seem to be issues about him and Leguizamon being on the same GP park at the same time, which has restricted his appearances, but gossip has it that Leguizamon is after an Italian passport, which would get over the problem.
The forgotten man seems tobe James Storey, a newcomer only a year ago, and now rumoured to be on loan at London Welsh, although he may well still be with us. It's hard to know, when you don't see people! Next season Catt, Tiesi, Mordt and Geraghty at least will be joined by the mighty Mapusua in the centre. Wow!
The eagerly-awaited arrival of Riki Flutey came just in time for him to have four days’ familiarisation at Sunbury before he appeared with his team-mates against Wasps in the Powergen (Anglo Welsh) Cup. He replaced the incumbent Barry Everitt who was injured, and who hardly got another look-in until the end of the season. Riki managed 100% with his place-kicking that day, something he never again managed to equal, but the reasons for the late-season decline of his success stats may have more to do with an ongoing injury to his left foot than to any lack of talent. He played on through injury, propped up by daily jabs because there was no one else. A true club man and a great signing, one of the key players in the team.
Ross Laidlaw showed wonderful class at 10 against Cardiff, but never really got the game time he craved. A serious injury ended his season early, and he is sadly now departing to Saracens, ostensibly as first reserve to Glen Jackson.
Barry Everitt has shown more running in his limited appearances than he has managed to show in his several seasons with us. Not unreasonably labelled as a kicker, only a few of us recall that he was known as a running fly half when he played in Ireland and before Dr Venter got his hands on him. Rejuvenation seems to be on the cards, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer man. The third 10 slot would seem to be Geraghty’s now, although I’d expect him to stay focussed on playing centre.
At scrum half the early battle was between the much-hyped and experienced newcomer, Ben Willis, and young Paul Hodgson, all feisty ambition. Gradually, form and injury put Paul in the hot seat, although Willis finished the season strongly. With the little appreciated Darren Edwards departing, there seems to be a vacancy here.
The key to much of our success has not been just the high-scoring but somewhat opportunistic backs, so much as the hard-working forwards, who have provided the platform.
The London Irish front row was the scene of more changes than you would find at Edgware Road tube station in midweek. We started off with Neal Hatley at loose head and Rob Hardwick at tight head, positions they had occupied since the Club was founded in 1898. Match in, match out, they were alternated at half time by Michael Collins and Richard Skuse respectively. In earlier days the alternates got pushed around a bit, but by the end of the season they were giving as good as they got a lot of the time. Skuse’s scrummaging, in particular, has improved no end.
The much-trumpeted and somewhat large Springbok, Faan Rautenbach, arrived in October, and started with 15 minutes in the away Saints game. Thereafter he became a fixture at tight head, although he seldom seemed to be on the park for a full match. Reserve prop Doug Wheatley was allowed to leave in mid-term, followed a month or so later by the peerless Hardwick, now long of tooth and weary of body, but always huge in courage and spirit. The other reserve prop, young Adam Halsey, seemed out of the reckoning, and it was no surprise when he left at season’s end.
It has to be noted that Hatley has not only played some of the best rugby of his career this season, highlighted by his getting the best of several notable tight head icons, such as Julian White, but that he must have played in 90% plus of our matches, given injuries to Collins and the lack of a hard-scrummaging third alternate. Maybe Beefy will last for ever?
By the end of the season two of our four front line props were seriously injured, and hooker David Paice finished three matches playing creditably at loose head, when even Skuse and Hatley succumbed to injury. We finished Sunday’s cup final with uncontested scrums when we simply ran out of personnel!
Clearly we need more, better props, if we (and they) are to stand up to the rigours of top level competition every week. As I write I am cheered to think that Neal will be able to sit out one or two matches next season as we have signed the giant Tongan prop Tonga Lea'aetoa, who can play on both sides of the scrum.
We started with three and finished with four hookers. In early season, messrs Adrian Flavin (injured just when he needed to cement his place and now off to Connacht) and Robbie Russell were being pressed from below by Academy scholar David Paice, and for a month or so by Gavin Hickie, the Ireland A international. Hickie, however, made off to Worcester at the first sight of the next new boy, Springbok Danie Coetzee, as hard a scrummager as we have ever had in this position, and a large handful around the pitch. Since Danie has spent more than 50% of his time with us on the injured list, this has thrown the gauntlet down for Russell and Paice who have both risen to the challenge magnificently. Paice in particular has improved out of sight, and the weight of his scrummaging is demonstrated by his guest appearances as an emergency loose head prop! His Try of the Century also demonstrated his mobility in the loose. We seem to be rich at 2.
In the second row the one fixture was Big Bob Casey, who improved as the season lengthened. Happily Bob extended his contract with the Club in mid season. The permanent absentee was Ryan Strudwick, as out of favour this season as last, a curious fate the for ZP Lock of the Year only a couple of years back. Nick Kennedy started as Bob’s partner, replaced, when Nick was injured against Agen away, by Kieron Roche, fresh from a number of starring roles in the back row. While Nick regained his place right at the last, the arrival next season of the feisty and talented young James Hudson from Bath suggests a mighty battle for starting spots, as all four players have international ambitions and ability.
The back row, like the front row, became a place of mix and match, as injuries, form and tactical considerations all took their toll. Magne lost two vital months through a foot injury back in the autumn, a period when Roche played at 6 and Declan Danaher kept Kieron Dawson on the sidelines at 7. It is not unreasonable that this persuaded ‘Awesome’ to look at pastures new. He is off to Ulster this summer. On his return Olivier was a bit ring-rusty but he gradually regained his imperious form and gave some master classes. Danaher consistently played with all the quality and urgency of an international, and was curiously ignored by Andy Robinson.
The ‘forgotten’ flankers were the recently promoted Academy scholar Richard Thorpe and Paul Gustard who broke his arm on the training ground, assisted by the 21 stone Rautenbach. Gussie joins Penney and Laidlaw at Saracens next year. The fast and committed Thorpe will doubtless get his chances as he matures. The survivors are joined by one cap Ireland International Aiden McCullen from Toulouse, and by 20 year old Steffon Armitage, in a reverse move from Sarries. Both are likely to get noticed!
Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Phil Murphy alternated at No 8, and the competition seemed to stimulate both of them to high levels of play. It was arguably Murphy’s best season with Irish. Both have extended their contracts with the Club.
Next year the Heineken Cup will doubtless tell us how far we still have to travel if we are to be counted among Europe’s Big Boys, but for now we can look back at what has arguably been the Club’s most successful season ever. My own take is that there was not a great deal to choose between many of the GP clubs, and the closeness of many of our results suggests that we still have a way to go if we want to be regarded as being more than a flash in the pan, permanent achievers, as Bath once were, and Leicester.
The ERC Final. Lost 34-36
Oh sod it. Does it really matter?
You’ll probably have worked out by now that we didn’t win the match, but equally that the result could not have gone to a more deserving team. Gloucester are the European Challenge Cup Champions, despite the rain, the early kick-off, our second half come-back, and the curious inconsistency of the match officials (which cut both ways.) Well done Gloucester and Well done, London Irish.
Read nothing into the result. Everyone did their best, and everyone was knackered! It’s been a 50 week season for the squad. What they need now is a break, not an overseas trip with alickadoos.
Who’d be a player in 2006?
photos by cormac