“They say they will return again,
But they won’t say exactly when…”
Those are the closing lines from a song aptly named ‘London Irish’ by The Divine Comedy.
With the Reading-based club’s relegation fate all but sealed after losing to Harlequins on Sunday, the Premiership is waving goodbye to one of its most historic clubs. Yet it seems few know how the club came to be.
The story begins at the turn of the 20th century with a group of exiles making their fortune in England’s capital city. They were lawyers, politicians, professionals and businessmen with well-stocked pockets but unsatisfied hearts yearning for a taste of home.
The club became a place for those from the emerald isle to meet, to reminiscence, perhaps to forge,t but more importantly to create a common sense of identity both on and off the pitch.
What began with an initial fixture against the now defunct Hammersmith RFC, turned into regular matches against the top clubs in London, including matches against Wasps and Saracens.
However, just as the club was building momentum, the vicissitudes of politics intervened. The First World War, the Easter Rising of 1916 and the issue of Irish independence robbed the club of many of its best players, and it wasn’t until 1923 when the Irish Free State was created that the club was able to begin on its journey once more.
The 1920s and 1930s saw sustained growth with players being capped for Ireland, including George Beamish (the name might be familiar to those with a taste for stout) who not only captained Ireland, but was also a pilot during the Battle of Britain. Sadly, the Second World War stole nine lives from the club.
The 1950s saw the club establish itself at the forefront of the English game. It was regularly fielding multiple sides and was the first club in Britain to host an Italian side in Roma.
Later, in the Sixties, Irish would spend the majority of their time back at their old home of Sunbury, having spent many years previously sharing with Blackheath.
The 1970s saw the introduction of merit tables by the RFU, with the club finishing first in the 1976-77 season having all bar one of their games.
National success was tantalisingly close in 1980 when Irish reached the final of the John Player Cup, losing to a dominant Leicester outfit 21 – 9. The rest of the decade was one of inconsistency for the club with mixed results in successive merit table competitions.
Financial problems dogged the club throughout the first half of the ‘90s, but with the advent of professionalism on 26th August 1995, Irish embraced the challenge.
The professional era saw the club win the Powergen Cup in 2002, finish runners up in the European Challenge Cup and also second in the English Premiership, after coaches Toby Booth and Brian Smith built a team based around the Exiles’ impressive academy.
Whilst the club has developed a significant number of Irish internationals including the likes of Mike Gibson, Tony O’Reilly, Ollie Waldron, Ken Kennedy, Brian McCall, Brian Spillane, Brendan Mullin, Simon Geoghegan, Rob Saunders and many, many more, it began to produce young English talent during the professional era.
Rob Hardwick, Geoff Appleford, Michael Horak, Shane Geraghty, Paul Hodgson, Topsy Ojo, David Paice, Delon Armitage, Nick Kennedy, Steffon Armitage, Alex Corbisiero, Jonathan Joseph and Marland Yarde were all capped whilst playing for London Irish, and the likes of Anthony Watson were developed through the club’s academy.
The quality of the coaching was good enough to see both Brian Smith and Mike Catt – former players of the club as well – become attack and skills coaches for successive England set-ups.
Yet in the past few seasons, the team has struggled with many players leaving to join Booth at Bath, including Watson, Matt Garvey, Max Lahiff, Jonathan Joseph and Tom Homer, and others heading to other clubs, such as the Armitage brothers at Toulon, Yarde at Quins and Corbisiero at Saints.
The core of the squad that had been built up dissipated, leaving a few die-hard older heads, expensive foreign imports and a host of untested youngsters.
In many ways, relegation was almost inevitable for this side given how much the player base had altered in recent years. But although relegation will cause much pain to the club and to its supporters, it gives the team a chance to rebuild and to come back stronger. Northampton, Harlequins, Worcester and Newcastle have all been through this pain, but with the pain comes desire and with desire comes success.
They say they will return again, and from an English perspective that time cannot come soon enough. Like so many challenges in their past, Irish will embrace this and they will overcome it. It’s only a whisper now, but the team with the secret history will have a brighter future for all to witness.