London Irish have never won the Premiership and let’s be honest – they won’t this year either. There is still, however, room to be excited at the Madejski. The new ownership isn’t quite Mourad Boudjellal, but they have splashed a bit of cash and constructed a fantastic new training facility at Sunbury, and brought in a few very credible signings to help offset the big name departures.
While Irish are perennial also-rans, with the exceptions of a couple 3rd place aberrations, last season was poor even by their not-so-lofty standards. It was only the third time they have placed in the bottom three, even though they actually earned one more league point than the year before. On paper they simply didn’t have the horses up front to compete, but more than that they have badly missed the goal kicking of Tom Homer and a flyhalf capable of controlling the game on a consistent basis. Homer is fit again, and the jury is out on the other issue.
Shane Geraghty was the better of the two options at no10 last year. Unfortunately he remains a bit of an enigma. Loads of talent but unable to deliver week in, week out, and a little short in the kicking department. In comes Chris Noakes from the Blues, a fairly unspectacular flyhalf though he is better with the boot and has had some decent outings in Super Rugby. He didn’t really excel in the wild west that is southern hemisphere running rugby, perhaps he will feel more at home in the more restrained approaches in the north.
Up front there are several useful additions. Tom Court and Geoff Cross add depth to the front row, with Sean Cox and Dan Leo providing muscle to the engine room. Tom Guest and Luke Narraway are astute signings and join a very solid stable of back rowers who should keep each other on their toes. Even Conor Gilsenan, a former Ireland u19 captain who has flown under the radar at Leinster, could be a bit of a surprise package if he comes good on his potential.
While it’s never good to lose players of the calibre of Marland Yarde and James O’Connor, it’s doubtful their personalities will be missed and for the price they were commanding it’s probably for the best that they’ve moved on. Last year’s midfield weren’t the types to move the ball quickly through the hands anyway, though Eoin Griffin’s arrival should help in that regard. James Short is an under-appreciated winger with searing pace who could fast become a favorite with the Irish faithful.
There’s quite a few pundits picking Irish for the drop, and the overwhelming majority have them battling to stay afloat. It’s hard to argue with that point, mostly on account of their lack of genuine class, but if they can find some consistency in selection and string together some solid performances there’s no real reason to panic. When push comes to shove, expect them to be around the same position the were in last year. Not great, but safe from harm.
Now in his second stint as head honcho for Irish, and from an outsiders perspective it might be time for a new challenge. He’s a highly rated attack coach but hasn’t really been able to get the best out of the current side and maybe it’s time for some new ideas. Maybe this season will revitalise his enthusiasm. It sure looks like he could use a boost.
The big man was appointed captain upon his arrival at the club two seasons ago and is a real pillar of strength in the boilerhouse. He’s been partnered by a handful of journeymen in that time and should be pleased to finally have a player of Leo’s calibre beside him. He’ll have to work quickly to bring his new pack together, and most importantly get the lineout up to speed.
Not as quick as he once was but still fit, Irish go from a little lost to completely wayward without him. With Patrick Phibbs surprisingly let go in the off-season, there’s little depth behind him with youngster Scott Steele a good prospect but untested at this level. Smith will be desperate to keep his top lieutenant in good working order for the entire season.
The youngest and biggest of the Armitage brothers, Guy has struggled with injury for a couple years. When he has played he sometimes suffers from bouts of mental fatigue, but when he’s in the game he is a force to be reckoned with. There are few backs with his size and athleticism around the Premiership. If he can improve his work ethic and stay on the pitch, he could make a real splash in the midfield.
Eamonn Sheridan and Fergus Mulchrone were the first choice centre pairing for much of last year, and while they soldiered on, their limitations were pretty apparent. Griffin arrives fresh off three strong seasons with Connacht and offers something different. Capable of playing either midfield position, his distribution skills and strength in defense should earn him a starting role.
IN – Tom Court (Ulster), Geoff Cross (Edinburgh), Sean Cox (Edinburgh), Daniel Leo (Perpignan), Luke Narraway (Perpignan), Tom Guest (Harlequins), Chris Noakes (Blues), Eoin Griffin (Connacht), James Short (Saracens), Martyn Thomas (Gloucester)
OUT – John Yapp (Wasps), Ian Gough (Dragons), Bryn Evans (Biarritz), Declan Danaher (retired), Jonathan Fisher (Northampton), Christopher Hala’ufia (Scarlets), Ian Humphreys (Ulster), Sailosi Tagicakibau (Wasps), Marland Yarde (Harlequins), James O’Connor (Toulon)