Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Exiled Irish: A New Zealand Tale

Semple kicking for goal in East Coast colours.

Semple kicking for goal in East Coast colours.

Currently training with Hawke’s Bay as part of their wider squad ahead of the ITM Championship, which kicks off in August, Ulsterman John Semple has enjoyed much success since arriving in New Zealand last year. He has risen through the ranks of the club game and says “I’m going to keep pushing and playing as hard as I can.” So far, he describes his experience as “awesome” and feels that other Irish players could benefit from a similar move.

Semple’s rugby career started at Limavady CRFC, near his hometown of Drumsurn in County Derry. Even at that level, his potential was apparent and he was part of the Ulster Junior team for two seasons in a row.

After finishing his studies, the outhalf stepped up the levels by joining Ballymena. In Division 1B of the AIL, the squad included other talented young players like Luke Marshall and Ricky Andrew. But things got off to a bad start for the Semple:

“Just coming up to the start of the AIL, I broke my leg. I healed pretty quickly and was good to go by January, but then I re-broke my leg in April.”

It was a frustrating season for Semple, who found himself playing on the wing when he was fit. He visited several doctors, before surgery to place a plate in his leg helped him to fully recover from injury. By that time, a decision to move to New Zealand had been made. Rugby was the motivating factor:

“When I set out, it was mostly just to play rugby. I’m a qualified pharmacist at home. But in New Zealand, I’d have had to do extra exams so I just thought, ‘Stuff that I’ll go and play rugby for a year and see what happens.'”

Semple and his East Coast teammates, including Rua Tipoki, after their Meads Cup success.

Semple and his East Coast teammates, including Rua Tipoki, after their Meads Cup success.

Kiwi friends made during his Limavady days helped Semple to organise a team in Christchurch, which has “some of the strongest club rugby in all of New Zealand.” Semple had a strong season with New Brighton in the Senior Division 1, but a step up to play representative rugby for Canterbury would have been huge.

Fortunately, another union had spotted Semple’s talent: “I got picked up by a smaller team, in the Heartland Championship. It’s a division below the ITM and it plays all over New Zealand, so that was pretty good. It was a team called Ngati Porou East Coast. It’s a big Maori team.”

The rise in standard proved no problem for Semple, as East Coast topped the 2012 Heartland Championship regular season table, before going on the win the Meads Cup with a miraculous comeback against Wanganui in the final. Semple says the entire experience was special:

“Unbelievable. Over the previous five seasons or so, East Coast had been awful, one of the worst teams. They’re one of the smallest teams in New Zealand in terms of the pool of players. The final was on national TV here. There was even a flash haka at half-time, 100 people out on the pitch banging out a haka!”

Semple says playing in a Maori club has been another highlight:

“The Maori culture in the East Coast is times ten what you find everywhere else in New Zealand. It’s so different, but it’s a real family atmosphere and everyone’s got your back, that shows on the pitch.”

Learning the Ngati Porou pre-match haka took some time, but by the end of the season, he “felt so much more confident with it. Once you know it, you get a massive buzz out of it, and you’re really pumped up for the start of the match. It’s pretty special.”

The Ngatai Porou haka.

The Ngati Porou haka.

Immediately outside Semple in that East Coast backline was player/coach Rua Tipoki, an old favourite at Munster. According to the Ulsterman, Tipoki’s still got it:

“He’s class. He’s obviously a little older now, but he’s got really fast feet, great footwork in close quarters. I’d just push a pass to him and all of a sudden he’d be through a hole.”

Semple’s excellence in steering East Coast around the pitch, place-kicking and bravery in defence in that run to Meads Cup victory led to more attention. The Hawke’s Bay Magpies proved the most attractive option and Semple joined their wider training squad for the start of this season. The ITM Championship doesn’t kick off until August, but training has been hectic nonetheless:

“We’ve been training for months now. We’re in the gym four times a week, and then we have club training Tuesdays and Thurdays, and Hawke’s Bay training on Mondays and Wednesdays. It’s pretty full on, a lot of training to be done, but I’m really enjoying it. It’s been awesome.”

Over the past two months, Semple has been playing club rugby with Taradale in the Nash Cup:

“All the guys training together at the moment with Hawke’s Bay, we play club rugby against each other every weekend. A few weeks ago I played against Ihaia West, who was the starting 10 for Hawke’s Bay last season.”

Semple lining out for Taradale in the Nash Cup.

Semple lining out for Taradale in the Nash Cup.

Playing with and against quality players at club level has obvious benefits. Semple feels that the attitude towards club rugby is something that is far better in New Zealand when compared to Ireland:

“Back home there’s contracted players who stay out of club rugby as much as possible. Maybe it’s different for academy players. The older players contracted to Ulster, they don’t even watch that much club rugby.

Over here, I’ve played with Super Rugby players who’ve maybe got a break from Super 15, a bye week, and they’ll think nothing of coming to play club rugby.”

The bigger names who Semple has already played with or against include Ryan Crotty, Jason Eaton, Tyler Bleyendaal, Andrew Horell, Gillies Kaka and Dan Waenga. Possibly involved in Hawke’s Bay’s ITM campaign will be Alby Mathewson, Ben Franks and “lots of New Zealand 7s guys.”

Hawke’s Bay will cut their wider squad down in around four weeks, but Semple is ambitious enough to make it:

“The sky’s the limit really. I came to New Zealand to play the highest level of rugby I could and I’m still climbing that ladder. I want to go as far as I can go. I’m going to keep pushing and playing as hard as I can. We’ll see.”

For other Irish rugby players who are thinking of moving away from home to play rugby and enjoy new experiences, Semple has nothing but encouragement:

“I’d say take a year out and have a go. Nothing at home is going to change. Just have a go is what I’d say. It’s easy really, all you have to do is get in contact with a club and they’ll try and help you out any way they can.

I’ve learned ten times more out here than I would have at home.”

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

TOULON

Warwick in Munster colours versus Toulon in 2011. (c) Liam Coughlan.

It’s an oft-repeated mantra in rugby that talent alone won’t get you anywhere. Having had “everything at my feet at one point”, Paul Warwick was perhaps heading towards being living proof of that as he struggled to make an impact at the Queensland Reds a decade ago.

However, the chance of a move to Connacht in 2004 meant a working environment  which brought out the best in the Australian’s natural ability. A schoolboy, U21 and 7s international after converting from league at the age of 16, he admits he “didn’t make the most of my opportunities” at home. Removed from his comfort zone, Warwick has thrived in professional rugby since.

Three impressive seasons in the west of Ireland resulted in what looked like a dream move to Munster in 2007. While the following four years in Limerick involved a Heineken Cup medal and two Celtic League successes, it didn’t go completely to plan for a man who prefers to control his team’s attacking play from outhalf. With Ronan O’Gara the undisputed number one in that position there was definite frustration for Warwick:

“At Munster, I was in Ronan’s shadow and had to play at fullback, so the challenge for me was to get back to running things at outhalf.”

When Stade Francais came calling in 2011 it was time to move again, lured by the prospect of securing the outhalf position at the Parisian club. With cultural and language complications to consider, it wasn’t the easiest decision for Warwick and his family, but they have found it a rewarding experience:

“I’ve really enjoyed the different experience, for myself and the family. I mean we would have regretted it if we hadn’t taken the chance. Maybe we didn’t give it our best shot with the language side of things, but to say you’ve lived and played in Paris is pretty great.”

On the pitch, the change from Pro 12 to Top 14 took adjustment, with the week-to-week demands ramped up in France:

“The Top 14 has a lot more competitive teams. In the Pro 12, there are some games against the likes of the Dragons which maybe aren’t as demanding. The pride involved in home games makes it tough in France. Even when you go to a team like Agen, who were relegated this season, it’s a serious challenge with that pride on the line.”

Luke McAlister

Warwick at fullback for Stade versus Toulouse in the Top 14. (c) Pierre Selim.

So has the move away from Ireland given Warwick the on-pitch footballing control that he desired?

Last season, under Michael Chieka, he faced stiff competition from Felipe Contepomi for the 10 shirt and was moved to fullback in order that both players could be accommodated. This season, under new management fronted by Christophe Laussucq, the emergence of 21-year-old Jules Plisson has limited Warwick’s game time at outhalf. Overall, more frustration:

“I didn’t achieve what I wanted to achieve in Paris personally. This season’s been ups and downs really, for me and for the team. Overall, we’re happy with the Amlin, but disappointed with the Top 14. We didn’t achieve the goals we set out at the start of the season.”

Those goals included finishing in the top six of the French championship. 19 points adrift, Stade Francais ended up in 10th. Just two wins away from home was the main reason.

A switch to Aviva Premiership side Worcester Warriors is the next move for 32-year-old Warwick. Worcester may have finished 11th in the Premiership this season, but with Dean Ryan set to take over at the club, Warwick is feeling positive:

‘They haven’t had the best of seasons, but they’re a developing team. With Dean Ryan coming in that’s a big plus, he’s got proven success. I think all the ingredients are there. I’m coming into a club where I don’t really know a whole lot of guys, so it’s just refreshing to be able to start again.”

Another chance to start from scratch, another opportunity to take control at outhalf. Before that, there’s one final task with Stade Francais: the small matter of a European final against heavyweights Leinster.

Paul Warwick in full flight

Warwick in full flight versus the Ospreys during his time with Munster. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

To be in a final at all came as a surprise to Warwick and his teammates. The Australian credits their European run to a recent change in attitude within the squad:

“It’s been unexpected. Our away form has been abysmal to say the least. But we went to Bath and Perpignan and came away with wins. The team is enjoying the footy we’re playing at the moment. There’s obviously lots of changes going on here, with the coaching team and everything, but we’re enjoying our footy. We’ll give it a real go.”

From Warwick’s point of view, it’s hard to pick out one area in which to target Leinster on Friday night. The focus instead will be on Stade’s own performance:

“Leinster have been the best team in Europe for a number of years, they really don’t have too many weaknesses. For us, the main thing is getting over the gain-line on first phase, putting them under pressure and asking questions of their defence. We have to match them at set-piece and then go from there. If we can do that, who knows?”

Warwick had settle for a place on the bench against Bath and Perpignan, and it looks likely that Plisson will be the man entrusted with the outhalf slot on Friday night. If things don’t go their way, Stade will call on Warwick’s flair and creativity. For himself and Stade, there is no fear in facing Leinster:

“Everyone wrote us off for the Bath and Perpignan matches and we went out and got the wins. We’re at a point where our attitude is that we’ve got nothing to lose, so let’s see what happens.”

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Photos: Liam Coughlan, Pierre Selim, Ivan O’Riordan.

Mafi Makes Impression on Top 14

Lifeimi Mafi copy

Mafi had some massive games for Munster, but many supporters found him inconsistent. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Amongst Munster fans, he was a divisive figure. Capable of moments of magic, but prone to lapses in concentration. 144 appearances over six seasons would have made many players heroes in Thomond Park, but Lifeimi Mafi never quite managed to achieve that status. When Munster announced the signings of James Downey and Casey Lualala, it was time to move on.

Relocated in Perpignan, Mafi’s first season in the Top 14 has been a success. He looks a better player in his new surroundings and has rapidly won over USAP’s fans.

36 appearances and six tries in all competitions make this the most prolific season of Mafi’s career in terms of playing time and scoring. At Munster, the ex-New Zealand underage international was seen purely as an inside centre, much to the disagreement of some. At Perpignan, his game time has been split between the 12 and 13 jerseys. The USAPistes Supporters Club say most fans prefer to see Mafi in the wider channel:

“Lots of us prefer him at 13, outside Sione Piukala. But David Marty is the undisputed starting 13 in the eyes of the coaches.”

These sentiments are backed up by Mafi’s displays when chosen at outside centre. Himself and Piukala managed to tear Clermont’s defence apart earlier in the season when partnered together (video below). Both of Mafi’s Top 14 tries came when he was fielded at 13.

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Regardless, the Tonga-born centre’s overall form has impressed. His skill set stands out for Perpignan, in particular the one-handed offloads which we saw glimpses of at Munster. At USAP, Mafi is completing 3 or 4 offloads per game. Watching him buzz around the pitch in that inimitable running style of his, the 30-year-old seems far more at ease than he did at Munster. This is being expressed in the confidence of his passes and offloads. (Check out this incredible pass!)

Equally, Mafi’s success rate could say something about the support play offered at Munster, an aspect that frustrated Lualala up until the closing stages of the season. Whatever the reason, Mafi’s increased creativity helped Perpignan to sixth place in the try-scoring standings for this Top 14 season. The USAPistes rate him as one of their most effective attacking elements:

“Mafi is a very good attacker. He’s lively and clever. He knows how to make ground when he has the ball.”

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Defensively, Mafi’s time at Munster was pockmarked by a few dangerous tackles and several instances of rushing out of the line to the team’s detriment. He could hit hard, but there was always a sense of not knowing what he was going to do. At Perpignan he has calmed in this regard. He still puts a hit on when he has the chance, but it’s far less common to see him shooting up headlessly.

For USAPistes, defence is “not necessarily the strong point” in Mafi’s game. The highlight reels going around France at the time of his move featured his most spectacular hits, and it was something that was expected from him at Perpignan. French fans appreciate a crunching tackle nearly as much as a skillful try. Mafi’s defensive game is more subtle now.

Signed to replace France and Toulon centre Maxime Mermoz, Mafi has had an excellent first year at USAP. He’s contracted until the end of next season and so far there’s nothing to suggest the club will be bringing in new centres this summer. The move to France has been a successful one, with Mafi showing facets to his game that never really flourished at Munster.

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Photos: Ivan O’Riordan.

Racing Ready for Sexton

Picamoles, Johnston, Nyanga, Albacete, Burgess

Racing take on Toulouse in tomorrow night’s play-off. The Parisian outfit have lost both meetings with the current holders this season. (c) Pierre Selim.

In February, I wrote a piece detailing Racing Metro’s history and recent form. For anyone who’s not too up-to-date on how Racing have developed since billionaire Jacky Lorenzetti bought the club in 2006, it’s certainly worth starting there. In this article, I take a look at how Les Ciels et Blancs have fared in the second half of the current campaign.

Racing’s season up to the mid-way point hadn’t been particularly smooth sailing. Knocked out of the H Cup at the pool stages, and suffering from inconsistency, the Parisian club were 8th in the Top 14. One of the major problems in the first half of the season had been the lack of a leader in the outhalf position. Previous incumbent Jonathan Wisniewski had been struggling with injury, and neither medical joker Olly Barkley nor young hopeful Mathieu Belie could fill in convincingly in his absence.

However, the return of France ‘A’-capped Wisniewski at the turn of the year coincided with a huge surge in form. From the 30th of December, with a 40-6 win over Agen, right up until the end of March, Racing went on a nine-game winning streak. With Wisniewski back at 10, Gonzalo Quesada’s team finally clicked. The outhalf has been taking almost every point on offer, and Racing’s confidence was obvious to see in excellent wins at home against Clermont and away to Montpellier.

Olly Barkley

After arriving as a medical joker, Barkley struggled to make an impact. He has left the club and is now being heavily linked with Grenoble for next season. (c) Pierre Selim.

That winning run was ended dramatically by Toulouse, thanks to a Lionel Beauxis conversion with the last kick of the game. Regardless, Racing have qualified for the Top 14 play-offs. Last weekend’s win over Castres ensured Le Racing finished the regular season in 5th, just one point off 4th-placed Castres. What it all means is that Lorenzetti’s club visit Toulouse tomorrow night in the barrage phase of the play-offs. A semi-final against Toulon awaits the victor.

Regardless of what happens in the knock-out stages, Racing have qualified for next season’s Heineken Cup, which will certainly come as a relief to Jonny Sexton. A first year spent playing in the Amlin Challenge Cup would have been anti-climatic. For rugby fans worldwide, it means more excitement. While Racing’s transfer activity remains unconfirmed by the club itself, it appears that Lorenzetti has bankrolled a remarkable bunch of additions for next season.

Midi Olympique, the French rugby newspaper, is reporting the following players to Racing as done deals: Sexton, Springbok lock Juandre Kruger, Welsh internationals Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts, Northampton props Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga’uiha, France flanker Wenceslas Lauret, Castres wing Marc Andreu, and Perpignan wide man Adrien Planté. That’s all on top of the capture of Castres’ excellent coaching duo of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers.

Six Nations Player of the Tournament, Dan Lydiate. Wales Grand Slam Celebration, Senedd 19 March 2012 / Dan Lydiate, Prif Chwaraewr Pencampwriaeth y Chwe Gwlad, Dathliadau Camp Lawn Cymru, Senedd 19 Mawrth 2012

Wales and Lions blindside will be joining Sexton in Paris next season. (c) National Assembly for Wales.

Racing appear to be waiting until their playing season is over to officially announce the signings. These additions will elevate expectations at the club to levels matching the big boys of Clermont and Toulon. Alongside the big-name signings has been the announcement of contract extensions for Le Racing‘s high-quality young players. France scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud, home-grown centre Henry Chavancy, dynamic prop Eddy Ben Arous and flying winger Virimi Vakatawa are among the prolongations.

Fiji-born wide man Vakatawa has been a real discovery over the last two seasons for the Parisian club, scoring 4 tries in 7 starts in the league this year. Indeed, speculation is mounting that the 21-year-old will be capped by France in the near future. The FFR are apparently awaiting confirmation from the IRB on Vakatawa’s eligibility for their test series in New Zealand next month. Meanwhile, Ben Arous has provided ball-carrying impact off the bench this season, while Chavancy has looked like a French international in-the-making.

With the likes of über-skillful fullback Juan Martin ‘El Mago’ Hernàndez, Argentinian winger Juan Imhoff, and French international trio Dmitri Szarzewski, Luc Ducalcon and Benjamin Fall also contracted for next season, Racing’s squad is bursting with talent. Toulon and Clermont will continue to improve, but Lorenzetti’s money has closed the gap with alarming speed. New entraineurs Labit and Travers have all the tools they need to challenge domestically and in Europe. Sexton will be excited to be involved.

Juan Martin Hernandez

El Mago has shown sparks of his former genius this season. Sexton may be the man to re-ignite the magician’s undoubted talent. (c) Pierre Selim.

Elsewhere, the delays Racing were encountering in attempting to build their new stadium, just 700m from the Grande Arche de la Défense, have finally been countered. Last month, the final protest was withdrawn. Construction of Arena 92, originally scheduled for completion in 2014, should be finished by the end of 2015. The stunning plans include 32,00 seats for sporting events, 40,000 capacity for concerts, and 33,000 square metres of offices, shops and restaurants. Building costs are expected to total around €320 million. Meanwhile, the club’s recently opened world-class training facility is running smoothly.

All these parts make up the package that attracted Sexton to Racing Metro. Lorenzetti looks to have delivered on the player investment promises that helped him to lure Sexton to Paris. Under two of the most highly-rated coaches in France, Sexton will be expected to make this Racing side tick.

Foreign players in France are laden with massive expectations from fans, coaches and co-players. If things don’t go right, they’ll be the first to be blamed, as the likes of Mike Phillips and Joe Rokocoko at Bayone have found out. However, if things go according to plan, they can become idols and focal points for their clubs. Jonny Wilkinson is the most high-profile example. Sexton will be aiming to emulate, and better, the Toulon outhalf.

Move over Wilko, there’s a new king in town!

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Racing Metro take on Toulouse tomorrow night in what is essentially a Top 14 quarter-final. Kick-off is at 8.00pm Irish time. As far as I can see, the match isn’t live anywhere apart from Canal+, but Setanta usually show re-runs.

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Photos: Pierre Selim, National Assembly for Wales.

What Does Irish Club Rugby Really Mean?

DOORADOYLE

Two pillars of Irish club rugby, Garryowen and Young Munster, do battle. (c) Liam Coughlan.

The IRFU published their Club Sustainability Report last month, after a year of investigating the subject of payment to club players. While the central objective was addressing the development of what the report dubs a “pay for play” culture, the findings pose several questions about the general purpose of Irish club rugby, and where it is heading. The IRFU need to fully address these issues before imposing financial constraints and other criteria upon the clubs.

The report’s foreword includes mention that the Working Party (the committee in charge of conducting the report, including Billy Glynn and Ian McIlrath) members “had different perspectives on the future direction of club rugby.” Indeed, the report admits that its recommendations “were not endorsed unanimously by all members of the Working Party.” Clearly, this is a divisive issue and one that is going to take some time to be fully understood.

Regardless, the report’s recommendations have been taken on board by the IRFU and will be implemented from the 2014/15 season onwards. Amongst the changes, payments to club players will be prohibited, transfers will be strictly controlled and clubs will have to meet minimum qualifying criteria to earn involvement in the All Ireland League. Most of these changes have been explained in depth elsewhere in the media over the past week, so it’s not worth outlining each of them here.

What hasn’t really been explained or discussed is how these changes might affect club rugby in Ireland and those deeply involved in the game. The report mentions that “[f]or some time the IRFU has been working with stakeholders within schools and clubs in agreeing and defining the values of Irish Rugby.” Subsequently, those values have been listed as Integrity, Discipline, Inclusiveness, Excellence and Fun. On first reading it’s a balanced list, but when you really look at these values, there are inherent contradictions.

UCD Rugby

UCD have earned promotion to Division 1A of the AIL this season, featuring several players who aspire to play professional rugby. (c) smcclaw.

The report accepts that “the genie of professionalism is out of the bottle and cannot be replaced”. It also acknowledges that to remove all player payments “would be to militate against those clubs which have the desire to reward players and which have the necessary resources to do so.” But are the new changes not trying to replace that genie? The rulings are certain to militate against some clubs.

Two of the values mentioned above are Excellence and Discipline. The fact is that several Irish clubs run themselves in a professional way. Their players are disciplined in their pursuit of excellence. Supervised gym sessions, meetings with nutritionists and video analysis are part of the schedule. The time and effort that goes into it, particularly from players, surely deserves some reward? Does the IRFU want the All Ireland League to serve as a breeding ground for professional players? And if not, where is the playing space for those players who have professional ambitions?

Professional rugby has changed how amateur clubs and players see themselves. Sport at adult level has always been about winning, but professionalism has made it the priority. Some clubs are now aspiring to a “level which cannot be sustained.” That is backed up by the debt figures included in the IRFU’s report. But where do you draw the line for these ambitious clubs who are over-reaching? Aspiring for Excellence is one of the IRFU’s values. Can you really tell a club that they should focus on Inclusiveness and Fun rather than trying to rise as high as possible?

TOM CLIFFORD PARK

Lansdowne, under Mike Ruddock, were Division 1A Champions this season. (c) Liam Coughlan.

The transfer of players between clubs is one of the main focus points of the report. Player loyalty is suggested as vital, with the recommendation that players “should be encouraged to remain with their ‘mother’ club”. Much like the recent ruling at Munster Schools level on player transfers, this is a topic that needs more debate. Why should a talented player not seek to play at a higher level, to pursue Excellence as best he can? For that individual, would it not be more Fun to benefit from playing with better players and train under better coaches?

If the IRFU are going to clamp down on player transfers, then how do they offset the disgruntlement that might arise? Is there enough being done to ensure that coaching levels across the country are fulfilling the value of Excellence? If players are going to stay with their local club, are they really being given the chance to pursue their ambitions? The report suggests that payment to club coaches should continue, as long as it “encourages the recruitment and development of indigenous coaching expertise.” There’s another contradiction in that. Does payment to Irish players not encourage the development of indigenous playing expertise?

It’s a highly debatable topic and one that certainly needs further discussion. Some of the changes set to be implemented may be impossible to actually enforce. If last year’s rulings on non Irish-qualified player numbers at provincial level (and the subsequent lack of clarity) are anything to go by, then this subject is far from decided.

Please feel free to post your opinions on the proposed changes, the values of Irish club rugby and the direction you would like to see it going. It would be interesting to hear different perspectives on the matter, so leave a comment below.

Read the full IRFU Club Sustainability Report here.

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Photos: Liam Coughlan, smcclaw.

The Exiled Irish: The Exiles

https://i0.wp.com/www.london-irish.com/uploads/images/originals/page1.jpg

London Irish was set up as a “home away from home” for the Irish in London. (c) London Irish RFC.

London Irish Rugby Football Club was founded in 1898 with the intention of providing “a welcoming home and hospitable meeting place for all Irish people” in the English capital city. Dubliner and Irish international Louis Magee was the catalyst in putting the club on the map in those early days. Over the following 115 years, the number of Irish-qualified players on the Exiles’ cards has varied, although the likes of Conor O’Shea, David Humphreys, Mark McCall and Niall Woods were part of a big group there in the first few years of professional rugby.

In 2008, Keith Wood called for London Irish to become a fifth Irish province, under the IRFU’s control. He wanted another option for players who were “unable to establish themselves in Ireland.” That kind of wholesale takeover was never realistic, but the idea wasn’t completely nonsensical. While the RFU would never  have allow one of their clubs to directly improve a rival nation, the potential increase in Premiership viewers based in Ireland was never fully considered.

The current day London Irish isn’t quite “a home away from home” for our professional rugby players, but there are signs of that changing. This season, they’ve fielded 7 Irish players in various competitions. 3 of those will still be at the club next season, while 2 more Irish have signed on. It’s positive to see, and hopefully a signal that London Irish are going back to their roots.

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Ian Humphreys

Alex Lewington

Humphreys (tackling) in action against Leicester in the LV= Cup. (c) Graham Wilson.

When Paddy Jackson was installed as first-choice outhalf for Ulster ahead of last season’s H Cup semi-final, Humphrey’s mind was made up. The 30-year-old signed for Irish in order to secure first-team rugby. Capped for Ireland at U19, U21, A and 7s levels, Humphreys never managed to earn full international honours despite his talent. This season, the outhalf has started all but 3 of London Irish’s Premiership games, as well as 3 in the Amlin CC and 2 in the LV= Cup.

Irish‘s form hasn’t been good. Despite talking about a top 6 finish at the beginning of the season, Brian Smith’s side have won only 7 games in the Premiership, leaving them 9th with 1 fixture left. They flirted with relegation for a while, before London Welsh’s 5-point punishment decided the issue. Humphreys has scored 142 points, including 1 try. Place-kicking duties have been rotated between himself, Tom Homer and Steve Shingler. The Exiles have already spoken about their ambitions for next season, and Humphreys will hope to play a central role.

Player Profile: Ian Humphreys     Twitter: @iHumph

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Tomas O’Leary

THOMOND PARK

O’Leary playing against Ulster during his time with Munster. (c) Liam Coughlan.

Similarly to iHumph, O’Leary left his home province after a young pretender had usurped him. In this case, Conor Murray’s rapid rise had left O’Leary as back-up at Munster and looking for a move away. Initially, it looked as though the Corkonian would be joining Perpignan, before Irish stepped in. O’Leary had a great start at the English club, despite their poor form. The scrumhalf quickly became a key man and a leader, starting all 9 of the Exiles‘ games up until the 28th of October, when he came off injured against ‘Quins.

Life at London Irish was proving very agreeable to O’Leary and he even had hopes of an international recall. The main thing was that he was “happy to be back playing regular rugby.” His interview with Gerry Thornley in the Irish Times on the 27th of October proved to be something of a curse.
The next day, he aggravated a “pre-existing lower back injury”, and eventually had surgery in December, ending his season. It’s obviously a worrying injury, but O’Leary is expected back fully fit for next season. Still only 29, he’ll hope to pick up where he left off.

Player Profile: Tomas O’Leary     Twitter: @Tomas_OLeary

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Brian Blaney

Behind Terenure..there's Brian Blaney

Blaney (left) on a advert for the AIB League in 2007! (c) Terenure RFC.

Ex-Leinster hooker Blaney joined Irish in 2010, having spent 6 seasons with Leinster. Capped at Ireland Schools and A levels, he picked up a Magners League medal in ’07/08. The peak of his playing time at Leinster was the ’05/06 season, when Blaney made 15 starts, including 6 in the Heineken Cup. After leaving Leinster at the end of the ’08/09 campaign, it looked as though his career as a professional rugby player might be over. He spent the following season with Terenure RFC as player/strength & conditioning coach.

In May 2010, London Irish announced that they’d signed Blaney to provide depth in the hooker position. Unfortunately, over the past 3 seasons appearances have been rare for Blaney, totaling 23. With Scottish international Scott Lawson and England-capped David Paice also on the books at Irish, competition has been fierce. Blaney left the club last summer, before injury problems meant the Exiles asked him to return. 5 starts over the course of the year followed. Last month, player and club parted ways for good. At 31, but with little front-line rugby in the last 3 seasons, the hooker certainly has more to offer elsewhere.

Player Profile: Brian Blaney

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Conor Gaston

22-year-old wing/fullback Gaston broke through at Ulster during the 2010/11 season, making his debut against the Dragons in the Magners League. He made 3 more appearances that season, impressing with his powerful running game. The following season, his chances were limited to just one start against Leinster, and a sub appearance against the Dragons. With Bowe, Payne, Gilroy and Trimble all well ahead of him, Gaston decided to take up the offer of a place in London Irish’s Academy at the start of this season.

The 95kg outside back got off to a great start with the Exiles, starring as his new club won the JP Morgan Premiership 7s Series. His evasiveness, pace and work-rate were all evident, making a good first impression. Since then, Gaston has mainly been involved with Irish’s A team, although he made his first senior start on the wing in the LV= Cup last December. He also racked up 4 sub appearances in the Amlin CC group stages. Interestingly, Gaston looks to be on his way out of the club already, although his next destination is unclear.

Player Profile: Conor Gaston     Twitter: @ConorGaston15

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James Sandford, John Ryan, Alan Cotter,

  Eamonn Sheridan & Jamie Hagan

Ulster-bred lock Sandford is in his 2nd season with London Irish. He was featured in last year’s Exiled Irish Youth XV, so click the link to learn about his background. This season he’s had just 2 starts, both coming in the Amlin CC. He’s had a couple of injuries this season, but is contracted until 2014.

Munster prop Ryan joined Irish on a loan spell last October as injury cover, making 2 lengthy sub appearances in the Premiership. When Ryan returned to Munster, tight head Cotter went in the opposite direction, making 4 appearances off the bench over the next month or so, before a brief stint at Bath. While they were both short-term moves, it was positive to see the Exiles look to Ireland for cover, and both young props got some playing experience.

23-year-old centre Sheridan has signed for Irish ahead of next season, joining after a year with Rotherham Titans in the Championship. The Ireland U18 and U20 international had an impressive season in Rotherham, starting 19 games and scoring 6 tries. Half of those appearances came on the wing, but at 6’4″ and 108kg, his future is certainly in the centre. A great prospect, and one to follow closely.

Hagan joins next season on a 3-year deal, moving from Leinster. The 26-year-old Wolfhounds-capped tight head will relish the chance of first-team rugby after 2 frustrating years at Leinster. He’ll surely be watched closely by the likes of Joe Schmidt and the provincial coaches.

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Photos: Liam Coughlan, Graham Wilson.

Munster Will Rue Missed Chances

Asm vs Munster

Missed chances in Montpellier. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

Muster getting within a score of Clermont in Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final was always going to be notched down as another ‘heroic’ performance. Based on form over the season, operating budget, home advantage and other reasons, Clermont were clear favourites. While Munster’s display was excellent and should be lauded, the players and management will have serious regrets about the chance that was missed.

The emotion of the Munster players immediately after the final whistle told the story. This wasn’t a case of being well beaten by the better team on the day, but rather of an opportunity missed. Clermont’s mental fragility at this stage of knock-out competitions was evident again, as Munster turned up in a big way. Rob Penney and his squad won’t merely shrug their shoulders and admit to being beaten by the best team in Europe. Instead, they will look to learn as much as possible from this loss.

Joe Schmidt made an interesting observation at his unveiling as Ireland coach, saying, “I am a massive believer that transition is a constant.” While it’s clear that Munster are in the midst of dealing with a changing playing staff, they remain in the business of winning trophies. The loss to Clermont won’t be accepted as something that was inevitable, but rather with a pronouncement of not making the same mistakes next time around.

Asm vs Munster

Clermont took their chances. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

More specifically, while this was an exceptional Munster performance with some top-class individual efforts, there were aspects that let them down. In the video below, the focus is on Munster’s use of possession and their inability to turn it into points on several occasions. Obviously they scored a superb, intelligent try through Denis Hurley and nearly had another after Casey Laulala’s perfectly-weighted grubber, but here the focus is on the opportunities they let slip.

The intention is not to be overly negative about Munster’s showing. They played some great rugby and it was thoroughly encouraging for next season. Paul O’Connell summed it up perfectly after the game:

“Second half we had our opportunities and we didn’t really take them. We got a good try from a great little chip from ROG, but there were plenty of other opportunities when we were in their 22, 10 metres from their line, five metres from their line particularly just before half-time and we didn’t take those opportunities.”

Let’s have a closer look at what O’Connell was talking about:

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I’d appreciate people’s honest, constructive feedback on this type of video post. Is there interest in more of this kind of thing? What could be done better? Let me know. Thanks.

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Photos: Mathilde Bourel is on Flickr, and can also be found on Twitter.