Rugby World January 1969
The Revival of London Irish
By Peter McMullan (Rugby correspondent “Belfast Telegraph”)
IN RECENT years London Welsh and London Scottish have boasted records that have given cause for great satisfaction both in their own immediate circles and further afield-in Cardiff and Swansea, Edinburgh and Glasgow. At the same time, London Irish have languished in decline, a succession of undistinguished seasons provoking sympathy-sometimes even derision-in Belfast, Dublin, Limerick and Cork.
Travel costs being what they are, London Irish’s visits to their native land are all too infrequent. Their progress, however, is followed with interest by expert and novice alike, with everyone eager to see the good name of Irish Rugby kept to the fore “across the water”.
The indications this season are that the Irish are doing this-and more. After being virtually ignored by the inter-Provincial selectors during the lean years, the club has again emerged as a source of talent for Ulster, Munster and Connaught.
It is, in fact, a case of Ireland rediscovering the Irish. A losing team has few admirers, whereas nothing succeeds like success, and the demands from elsewhere posed a problem over the past eight weeks.
Take November 9, for example, Munster were playing Ulster in Cork, which meant that the Irish, at home to Rosslyn Park, had to replace out-half John Moroney and prop Ollie Waldron, both required by Munster, plus second-row forward Nick Jones, a later replacement for his club partner, Andy Higginson in the Ulster pack.
Second-row forward Nick Jones
Earlier in the season Connaught called on back-row forwards Gay Cronnolly and Kevin Sheridan, at the time a Wild Geese player, for their opening game against Leinster. Connaught fell 6-15 and both were discarded against Ulster, who earlier invited centre Pat Lavery and hooker David Barry, a contender for an Oxford Blue, to play in their annual Ravenhill trial.
The London Irish revival has come no great surprise to those close to the team, for Waldron, recalled to prop for his third cap, against Australia in October, after a lapse of two years, has proved himself to be thoughtful and dedicated captain, one who has not spared himself in his efforts to place the club back where it belongs.
It was in 1959-60 that Ireland scrum-half Andy Mulligan led London Irish in what is recalled as their best season since their formation in 1898. Of 35 fixtures, they won 30, lost two and drew three, scoring 491 points to 163. Wing forward Billy Doyle started the rehabilitation in his two years as captain, and left Waldron with a solid foundation on which to build this season.
At the same time a number of new players have arrived to fill key positions. The versatile John Moroney, ex-U.C.D., Garryowen and Waterloo, has played twice for Ireland on the wing, has served Munster well as a centre and has appeared for Middlesex at both wing and out-half.
Out-half John Moroney
It’s hard to know where Moroney will eventually settle, but he remains an invaluable addition to any side and one who can kick goals with unusual accuracy. Three in the first half at Ravenhill allowed the Combined Irish Provinces to beat the Australians 9-3, and later he took over successfully from Ireland’s captain and Lion’s full-back Tom Kiernan, when a conversion was needed for Ken Goodall’s try against Australia.
Then came the Munster-Ulster inter-Provincial, and Kiernan did not hesitate to call on Moroney for three first half penalties and a second half conversion.
A week later London Irish beat Malone 6-5 in an exciting affair at Ravenhill and, while Moroney failed with a penalty and a couple of conversions, he still made one try and scored the other. The next day they fell 9-16 to U.C.D., Moroney contributing a dropped goal and two penalties.
Waldron, who describes London club rugby as “time-consuming and terribly demanding because so much travelling is required”, won the first of his two Oxford Blues as a prop in 1965, and was capped by Ireland in the second row against Scotland in the same season.
For the next match, versus Wales, he was a late replacement for the injured Bill Mulcahy, who had been overlooked for the three previous internationals.
Waldron’s selection in the second row was not altogether out of character, for he had made his representative debut there as a student at University College Cork, when the Combined Irish Universities upset the South Africans12-10 in Limerick during their ill-fated short tour in the spring of 1965.
A powerful all-round forward, who jumps well at the front of the line-out, Waldron was out of the game for some time, having decided that his studies come first.
Now 25 and an executive in a mining finance company, he has as his vice-captain, Cambridge Blue Mansell Heslip, a scrum half who has made an obvious impact with his quick break and long-standing ability to accept all the opposing forwards may offer with a wry smile.
Mansell Heslip, scrum-half, “accepts all that opponents may offer with a smile”.
Pat Lavery, a former English Schools centre, is in his second season with the club and, with Andy Doherty, forms a straight running mid-field pairing, John Murphy, a student, travels from Cardiff to play on the wing, with Mick Randall equally effective on the other flank.
Ken Kennedy, the British Lions and Ireland Hooker, joined the club in late November and is now working at Guy’s Hospital, London, whiles Jones and Higginson teamed up in the second row back in September.
Jones, ex-Queen’s and Ulster, spent a season at Oxford without making a regular 1st XV place for himself, and then missed a full year with a recurring ankle injury. Higginson, just 21 and a lieutenant in the Royal Marines, is regarded as one of the bright young names in Irish Rugby today.
After playing for Devonport Services, the Navy, and Combined Services last season, he joined London Irish and at the same time, established himself as Bill McBride’s regular partner in the Ulster second row. Only those who play in the same pack can appreciate just how hard he works.
I was most impressed with the play of the London Irish forwards against Malone, and they did well to come out on top, against one of the strongest eights in Ulster on a day when they were without their former Dublin University and Leinster No.8, Doug Heywood.
Their fitness and staying power undoubtedly owe a great deal to the efforts of their bearded South African trainer, Zak Blacker. A former Wasps and Middlesex hooker, he has been supervising the club’s once weekly evening training sessions on the cinder track at the Duke of York Barracks.
Blacker, who has been associated with the club only over the past year, stresses the importance of the basic skills of the game, and his theory that the finer tactical skills will develop naturally as players learn to make the most of their physical potential, is borne out by what London Irish have achieved this season.
Their revival may be overdue-but that does not make it any less welcome.