A League of their own - 1997 to 2001

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A League of their own - 1997 to 2001

by dom_pedro on Sat Oct 15, 2005 9:51 pm

Next article in the series by Steve Smith written back in the Rivals network days.

1997 - 2000

Conor took over the captaincy from Gary Halpin in season 97/98. But this was akin to deck-chair shuffling on the Titanic as we made no other significant changes and prepared for the now much stronger division one with the same squad who had failed the previous season. Cue another disastrous start and soon the club were belatedly forced to start looking to the southern hemisphere for fresh talent. With over half our matches played, we had one win and were the basement team.

February 19th should be a significant date marked down in the diary of every Irish supporter because it turned out to our day of deliverance. On the Thursday, Dick Best replaced Anderson as coach and lo, on the Friday, we went out and thrashed Bristol, and on the Saturday and Sunday, He rested. The legend of Lord Dick was born.

Some small ironies - that team against Bristol was selected by Anderson, and much more importantly, among Anderson's other final acts were the signings of Brendan Venter, Nick Harvey and Zac Feaunati - perhaps our true saviours that season if I may be permitted a little heresy against the good Lord.

Bristol was the start of a run of five wins out of six - the fifth of these probably deserves a small mention in passing - 62-14, a hat-trick for Bish, 32 points for Niall Woods, Zac given the freedom of the park and sweet revenge for Lord Dick over Quins. We had a massive stroke of good luck when the RFU administrators ruled no automatic relegation for the bottom two teams. Our 11th place out of 12 (6 wins, 16 losses) gave us another play-off lifeline, this time against Rotherham. Bish, in a rich vein of form that would soon get him his cap in South Africa, scored a try in each of the two legs to give us a comfortable aggregate win.

It was at this point that Lord Dick really began to make his mark on the club. Determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past and be over-influenced by a few good end-of-season results, he decided the squad had to be completely rebuilt. The supply-line of the best Irish-born players had been cut off by the IRFU who, quite understandably, wanted to build up their own desperately weak domestic structure. So the only alternative was to go south.

In an amazingly successful summer shopping spree, he picked up acknowledged top-class players like Kevin Putt and Stephen Bachop but also found unheralded rough diamonds like Jake Boer and Ryan Strudwick and seasoned pros of the quality of Neal Hatley and Jarrod Cunningham. The result, in season 98/99, was a remarkable flowering of our back play launched by a dynamic and highly-mobile pack. The staggering quality of some of our performances was such that, before long, if you didn't see a 14-pass try started from our 22-line, you left a game disappointed. Bash's one against West Hartlepool is recalled by many as the best but you could also pick out one of Niall Woods' many at Franklin's Gardens or Bash's in the home game against Quins or Bish's in the return game at the Stoop after all those memorable Niall sidesteps.

For one dizzy moment we were second in the league and travelling up to play the leaders, the Tigers, with our hopes soaring. Alas, a big defeat in that game proved we lacked something, the league run-in exposing weaknesses in our tight five. We drifted down the table and lost our fight for a European Cup spot - heartbreakingly only because of a farcical cricket score run up by Bath over London Scottish. So it was seventh place for us, 15 wins and 11 losses, with Niall Woods scoring 12 tries and Nick Burrows and Conor nine - but all owing a debt to the space created for them by the Doc.

For season 99/00, Dick made some necessary improvements to the pack but, sadly, our superb three-quarters unit disintegrated when we lost Nick, Niall and the Doc. The result was a season of anti-climax, eighth place with a record of nine wins, a draw and 12 losses. Our back-play lacked penetration but our forwards and JC's boot (324 points!) kept us competitive, ensuing two fine cup runs. Occasionally our pack would catch fire and blow away sides like Leicester and Bristol, but there was no consistency. Once again, Lord Dick bravely grasped the nettle and decided radical surgery was necessary. We will shortly the see the results of his second major team-rebuilding project, but given his great record, he carries it out with our absolute confidence and total support.
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