At some point, in the next few weeks, London Irish will play a game in the Aviva Premiership that will see them relegated for the first time. On Sunday, up in the North East, they had to get it right; they didn’t. As they haven’t for the majority of this season, the team didn’t click. Even the basics didn’t work, with Dean Richards commenting wryly that he thought Newcastle were the ‘best of two bad sides’. London Irish represent the perfect rugby deception. Looking at the personnel out on the field, there is little reason why then can’t perform. But they can’t. They battered away fruitlessly at the Falcons line, their fans crying out for something less predictable. But Tonks’ earlier intercepted pass had taken all dice rolling away with it. The Exiles were left with the dull thump of inevitability.
It’s been coming too. The loss against Worcester was a death knell for me. As far as season defining moments go, Ciaran Hearn’s 47th minute fumble at Sixways is up there. Jonny Williams stepped out of some loose Warriors’ tackling and found himself in open pasture. With one man to beat, his pass to Ciaran Hearn was as sympathetic as you could get, yet still, inexplicably, it hit the deck. Irish, in many ways, have let this season slip through their fingers.
The Exiles haven’t been relegation savvy. They haven’t bagged enough losing bonus points like their basement bedfellows; they haven’t won away from home. They haven’t beaten Leicester and Northampton like the Falcons. The fixture list has conspired against them too; Worcester away, Newcastle away, Sale and Quins at home. Should they make it all the way to the final game of the season, they will face off against Wasps at the Ricoh Arena, arguably the hardest game the committee could come up with.
So assuming it comes to pass; London Irish step off the plank. What shark infested waters await them; could they actually survive? Is it an abyss or is there life after relegation? Might the fall be the best thing that ever happens to them? Could this seeming end point become a beginning?
Papering over the cracks
Last season they were saved from the drop by London Welsh. Like everyone else in the Prem, Irish piled points on the Welsh, who were relegated with just one bonus point (gained from scoring four tries when Bath scored seven). But here’s the thing, Welsh’s demise papered over London Irish’s cracks. This year the same problems have persisted but they haven’t had a punchbag to cushion their fall. A new coaching set up led by Tom Coventry and a host of new players with world recognised credentials haven’t gelled. There has been twenty minutes here, thirty minutes there; all too often, a first half of solid defence has been followed by a sufficiently porous second. It’s an inconsistency that has Irish fans biting their hands. Inquests have come up relatively empty. They have endured a tricky injury list but all physios work hard; rugby does do that to you, it will kick you when you are down.
Here’s a quick quiz for you: Since the turn of the century (2000/2001 season), how many different teams have been relegated from England’s top flight? Answer: Eight. Rotherham (twice), Leeds (three times), Bristol (twice), Worcester (twice), London Welsh (twice), Newcastle, Northampton, Harlequins.
That list is striking for two reasons. The first is that there is a group seemingly stuck between two leagues. Leeds and Bristol will tell you they belong in the top flight, but at the moment they sit outside, like bastard cousins. They, Rotherham and London Welsh have tried on more than one occasion to make things stick. There has been talk of extending the top flight to include a couple more but no enlargement is forthcoming. There remains a small bunch of partygoers jostling to get in; Irish will have to avoid getting caught in the doorway.
The second thing is that two of those teams have, subsequent to relegation, gone on to win the Premiership. Saints and Quins bounced back incredibly well. In fact, if you ask both clubs what the drop did for them, they will say that it was a good thing: time to reassess, get a few things untangled and build a new squad. CEO Allan Robson referred to Northampton’s drop and subsequent redundancies as a chance to “strip away the fat”.John Kingston, Quins’ Head Coach in 2005, acknowledged that the drop was a much needed chance for them to reinvent themselves; he felt they had to stoop to conquer, if you will. And of course, we mustn’t forget the rise and rise of the Exeter Chiefs. The Devon side, once a centrepiece of the second tier, have successfully crashed through the ceiling and are now one of the best sides in the first. Their success is as much down to a superb off the field business plan as Baxter’s rugby nous: one, of course, begets the other.
How they fall
Irish’s relegation (if and when it happens) will be about how they fall. A parachute payment will give them a chance to hold onto crucial resources but fiscal activities will become heavily scrutinised. They will have to assess everything: players, coaches, backroom staff, administration. They’ll look at how they play, when they play, where they play. It will be a gamble to continue their tenure at the Madejski. What will happen to the crowds? Are there enough supporters who will watch Championship rugby? And what will winning do? They’ll come down and be, effectively, the best side in the league. They will win most of their matches. It’s been scientifically proven that fans like winning. They haven’t won a lot in a while. That’ll change things.
But coming back up won’t be straightforward. England’s second tier is getting better. Just ask Bristol; they are currently ‘enjoying’ their seventh straight attempt at getting out. There are teams trying to amass a push of their own. Outside of those mentioned above, Jersey are making waves; Cornish Pirates will start building their new stadium soon, aiming to do what their Devonian neighbours have done; there’s canny Mike Rayer’s Bedford; Doncaster are doing a lot of things right. Curiously, it would be the first time (since leagues began) that the capital’s exiles from Ireland, Scotland and Wales have played in the same division; they could be joined by Richmond too, what a cosy corner that could be. If Irish are to make it back up, they will have played some good rugby.
Sport is good at victories. We remember the winners; we love to hear the tales of when it all went right. But some of the best stories come out of loss. It can break you, but, in no uncertain terms, failure can make you: England’s Grand Slam owes a lot to what happened at the World Cup. London Irish have been chinking glasses at the top table for nigh on twenty years. Next year could be their greatest adventure; it’s time for them to find out what lies beneath.