A League of their own - 1995 to 1997

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A League of their own - 1995 to 1997

by dom_pedro on Sat Oct 15, 2005 9:49 pm

Third article in the series by Steve Smith

1995 - 1997

But the benefits of Clive's cerebral approach were evident in season 95/96. Gary Halpin returned from his heroic try-scoring exploits in the World Cup to skipper the side, now containing major new signings David Humphreys and Conor O'Shea.

Typically, Conor scored two tries on his league debut but the side lost their opening two matches. They then proceeded to win their next 15 out of 16 to finish in second place. A nice touch was clinching promotion with a rout of Blackheath at the Rectory Field, the team who had denied us seven seasons earlier.

Corcoran had his final great season with the boot before being lured away to Quins, an incredible total of 301 league points. O'Shea with ten tries shaded Henderson with nine. Hendo also starred in a fine cup run where we gave the Tigers a scare in a packed Sunbury semi-final.

The return to the top-flight in 96/97 made us, for perhaps the last time, a beacon for the finest Ireland could produce, attracting Jeremy Davidson, Gabriel Fulcher, Kieron Dawson, Malcolm O'Kelly and Niall Woods. But what should have been a grand return was clouded in confusion from the outset. An unsettled Woodward was eventually replaced by Dungannon's Willie Anderson - probably you couldn't find two greater polar opposites as coaches. The choice of Anderson appeared to symbolise a return to the great Irish rugby virtues of passion and forward spirit - summed up by his own most famous moment on a rugby pitch when he charged the Irish national side into the All Black's little pre-match morris dance.But would these traditional Irish rugby virtues allow London Irish to prosper in the newly-dawning professional era?

The answer was a resounding no. We struggled big-time, being pasted 66-7 by Quins and finding many ways to lose other closer matches. During these dark days, Rob Henderson shone like a beacon, putting in heroic performance after performance - I particularly remember one try he scored at Kingsholm where he ran half the length of the pitch bumping aside the entire Gloucester team like ten-pin skittles. He was to say enough was enough shortly after this, swapping Sunbury for Sudbury, but Irish supporters will always cheer Hendo no matter what shirt he turns up in because of these times.

Two wins in 14 games left us fit for the drop. But fortunately, there were two teams making an even bigger hash of professionalism than us in Orrell and West Hartlepool. The trigger to pull clear of these two was provided by a fantastic victory at last served up for the suffering supporters. David Humphreys set up a late try for Conor to seal a one-point victory against Quins, provoking the mother of all Sunbury parties. This inspired the team to mini-revival of three more wins, helped by the signings of flanker Ken O'Connell and scrum-half Niall Hogan, tenth place out of 12 and a play-off with Coventry. A dazzling try by Niall Woods in the first leg and a storming kicking game by Humphreys in the second saved our bacon.
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