Tag Archives: Exiles

Ireland’s Fifth Province


The following is a guest post by Rory O’Kane.

Ireland’s official rugby anthem Ireland’s Call mentions the four proud provinces of Ireland in its lyrics but fails to mention the Irish Exiles, who have been fundamental to Irish rugby. The Exiles system has provided us with players of the calibre of Simon Geoghegan, Simon Easterby, Rob Henderson and Nick Popplewell. The latter trio were Test Lions, while Geoghegan was touted as a likely Lion prior to injury in 1997.

With Ireland having a relatively small rugby population, Ireland needs the biggest player pool it can possibly get and the Exiles system facilitates the growth of Irish rugby’s player pool.

In recent years the link with the Irish exiles had weakened. Players such as Shane Geraghty, Andrew Sheridan, Nick Kennedy, Paul Doran-Jones (Ireland U19, U21) and Kieran Brookes (Ireland U18, U19, U20) slipped through the net. However, Irish rugby wasn’t overly concerned; after all it was too busy basking in the success of the “golden generation” of 2004-09 with three Triple Crowns, a first Grand Slam in 61 years and the unprecedented success of the provinces at Heineken Cup level.

It took the 2012 scrum fiasco in Twickenham for the IRFU to decide to strengthen the Exile link with the intention of increasing Irish rugby’s player pool and, more particularly, to unearth a few tight-head props. The IRFU have since appointed Mark Blair as the Development Manager for the Irish Exiles, an arm of the IRFU that runs representative sides for Irish-qualified players based in England, Scotland and Wales. He commented upon his appointment:

“This is a full-time IRFU position because they want to work much more closely with the Exiles. We feel we are only scratching the surface of the players in England, Scotland and Wales that are available to play for Ireland.

It is an alternative opportunity and we are not trying to take players away from anywhere else. But we want to offer that choice to young players of being eligible to play for Ireland.

The recession has seen more Irish people move to Britain and we want to give a pathway for young-Irish qualified players to progress their rugby with the possibilities of international rugby and also the chance to move to Ireland.”

The IRFU already appear to be reaping the rewards of utilising their Exile branch again. No less than 7 Exiles being involved with Ireland U20’s this season:

2013 Irish U20 Exiles

Conor Joyce (Ulster Rugby):  Solihull-born Joyce down the Leicester Tigers academy to join Ulster last season.  The 6ft 3ins blindside/no. 8 has made seven appearances for the U20s this year and has even captained the side against Fiji. He is held in high regard in Ravenhill and even made his Ulster debut against Glasgow in February.

George McGuigan (Newcastle Falcons): Standing at 6ft and 105kg, the hooker has been a mainstay in the no. 2 jersey for Ireland making six U20 appearances. In April, he was rewarded with a one-year contract at Newcastle, despite not having made his Falcons’ debut yet. He has made the first team bench as an unused substitute. McGuigan spent last season on a dual-registration deal with Tynesdale in National League 1.

Ryan Furness (Worcester Warriors): The tighthead prop has been battling Adam Boland and Chris Taylor for the number 3 jersey. Despite regularly making the match day squads in both the Six Nations and JWC he has yet to start. Furness has made two first team appearances for Worcester Warriors.

David Panter (Connacht Rugby): The 5ft 11ins Surrey-born fullback was identified through the Exiles system and signed by the Connacht academy. A former Ireland U18 clubs international, he has made five Ireland U20 appearances and is part of the JWC squad.

Alex Wootton (Northampton Saints): The Saints winger was called up to replace the injured Tom Daly in the current JWC. Wootten was part of Northampton’s squad for the 2012 Premiership 7s. He was capped at U16 level by England. The speedster spent this season on a dual-registration deal at Cambridge. Wootten is eligible for the Ireland U20s again next season.

Jake Caulfield (Ulster Rugby): The 6ft 3ins, 18 stone prop from Western-Supermare spent two seasons in the London Irish academy before joining Bristol for a season. In October of 2012 Ulster signed him on a 3-year contract. He also had a spell in New Zealand with Petone in Wellington. Caulfield is a former England U16 and U17 international and can play both sides of the scrum. He made 1 Ireland U20 appearance vs Wales in the Six Nations.

Alex O’ Meara From the famed Hartpury College, the winger made his single Ireland U20 appearance vs Wales in the Six Nations.


You can follow Rory O’Kane, author of this piece, on Twitter. You can also follow the Irish Exiles on Twitter. For more on Irish players based abroad, click the ‘Exiled Irish’ tab at the top of the page.

The Exiled Irish: The Exiles


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.


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


Tomas O’Leary


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


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


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


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.


Photos: Liam Coughlan, Graham Wilson.

The Exiled Irish: Les Grenoblois


Grenoble’s Stade Lesdiguières has become home for three Irish professionals. (c) Vijay PhotoWalks.

This time a year ago, The Touchline featured an Exiled Irish piece on four Irish professionals contracted in France. Picking up in that vein, this article looks at the growing Irish community at French Top 14 club Grenoble. The Isère-based outfit currently have two Irish players on their cards, as well as a coach. James Hart and Andrew Farley are at very different stages of their careers, but both are enjoying success at Grenoble. The experiences of Hart should encourage young Irish players who miss out on Academy and provincial contracts that there are other options, while Farley’s example will surely inspire older professionals to try something different.

Meanwhile, the success of Bernard Jackman in his first season at Grenoble will be equally encouraging to young Irish coaches, as well as to other French clubs. With Jackman’s positive impact comes more international acceptance of the quality of Irish coaches. The news that Mike Pendergast will join Jackman as Grenoble’s Skills Coach may be a sign of things to come for Irish backroom staff. With 30 professional clubs spread over the Top 14 and Pro D2, as well as a host of semi-pro teams in Fédérale 1, there is far greater need for good coaches. The more Irish players and coaches we can have playing and working regularly in a professional environment, the better Irish rugby will be.


James Hart

Hart’s move to Grenoble last summer was one that flew well under the radar. The  21-year-old halfback is Dublin-born and attended Belvedere College. His mother hails from Toulouse, and Hart’s rugby education was kick-started there. At the age of 16, Hart moved to Toulouse for transition year, living with his grandparents. He stayed for 8 months, playing for Stade Toulousain’s Cadet team alongside the likes of Jean-Marc Doussain and Nicolas Bézy. Hart claims that period made him “physically and technically stronger“. He returned to Ireland to play Schools Senior Cup, as well as for Leinster up to U20 level.

Having graduated from school in 2010, and with no Academy offer from Leinster, Hart joined AIL side Clontarf, where he was coached by Bernard Jackman. This relationship resulted in Hart joining Grenoble a year later, in the summer of 2011. His first season at FCG saw the halfback play for the Espoirs side (U23 level), while training with the pro side. This season has seen Hart make big strides. He made his first senior start last December, playing outhalf in FCG’s 20-9 win over London Welsh in the Challenge Cup. Substitue appearances followed in the return match and against Stade Francais in the same competition.

The 83kg Dubliner had to wait a little longer for his first Top 14 chance. Last month, he started at scrumhalf in the 33-16 loss away to Biarritz and then came off the bench against Bayonne just 2 weeks ago. Hart’s goal-kicking skills have seen him convert 3 penalties (one of which earned FCG a losing bonus point in the last minute) and 2 conversions in his 5 appearances so far. Grenoble appear to see the youngster as a scrumhalf, but he has plenty of experience at outhalf. He also played in the centre for Clontarf (as shown in the video above). His impressive progress this season has resulted in him signing a new two-year deal.  Certainly one to watch next season for Irish rugby fans.

Grenoble Profile: James Hart


Andrew Farley

Farley has been captaining Grenoble since

Farley (first on left) has been captaining Grenoble since 2010. (c) Vijay PhotoWalks

Farley was one of those featured in the original Exiled Irish piece mentioned above. Born in Australia (and capped at U19 and U21 level), the second-row qualified for Ireland on residency grounds after 5 seasons with Connacht. That spell followed short stints in Italy with L’Aquila (under Mike Brewer) and Wales with Swansea. The Brisbane-native was part of the Ireland ‘A’ side who won the Plate at the 2007 Churchill Cup. In 2009, Farley decided to take up an offer from Grenoble, then in Pro D2, and hasn’t looked back since.

His first season at the Isère club saw them finish 6th, before agonisingly missing out on automatic promotion to the Top 14 by just 2 points in the ’10/11 season. Already a key player thanks to his excellent line-out work and leadership, the 112kg lock was installed as captain that season. The following year, FCG stormed to the Pro D2 title, 18 points clear of 2nd-placed Pau. Most promoted sides have serious struggles in the Top 14, but that hasn’t been the case for Grenoble. Their excellent start to the season meant they were realistically safe by Christmas. Last weekend’s stunning last-gasp win over Toulon left them 9th, with just one game to go.

32-year-old Farley has enjoyed 14 starts in the league campaign as well as 5 in the Challenge Cup. His form shows no sign of decline and he recently penned a new deal keeping him in France until the end of the ’13/14 season, with the option of another year. Grenoble are an ambitious club and look set to continue their rise. Adopted Irish man Farley will continue to play a key part.

Grenoble Profile: Andrew Farley     Twitter: @BruceFarls


Bernard Jackman

Jackman scoring for Leinster (wearing green!) against the Reds in 2008. (c) Paul Walsh.

Jackman scoring for Leinster (wearing green!) against the Reds in 2008. (c) Paul Walsh.

Ex-Ireland, Leinster and Connacht hooker Jackman is coming to the end of his first full season as the club’s Defence Coach. The Tullow-native’s playing career saw him win 9 caps for Ireland, as well as a Heineken Cup with Leinster in 2009. He also enjoyed a spell with Sale, where he won a Challenge Cup. His coaching career began in 2005 at Newbridge Rugby Club. He led Newbridge to Leinster League Division 3 title and a Lalor Cup, before taking over at Coolmine RFC in 2007. Success followed again, culminating with the Dublin 15 side winning Leinster League Division 2 in 2009.

Jackman’s long-time club side Clontarf came calling in 2009, and he joined as Head Coach. With the Leinster hooker still playing at that stage, the ’09/10 season saw them relegated from Division 1A of the then AIB League. However, having retired from playing ahead of the ’10/11 season, Jackman helped the club bounce straight back up. The summer of 2011 saw Jackman resign for “professional developmental reasons” and he went on a two-month consultancy period with Grenoble, then in the Pro D2. Head Coach Fabrice Landreau was evidently impressed and Jackman signed on full-time for the start of the current season.

FCG’s promotion to the Top 14 meant Jackman was stepping into the fire in his new role as Defence and Skills Coach. However, Jackman and the rest of the coaching staff enjoyed a hugely positive start to the season, winning 10 of their first 15 league matches up until the New Year. Since then, the wins have been rare, just 1 in 9 games until last weekend’s win over Toulon. Still, for a promoted team it’s been a fantastic first season back in the top flight. Jackman has made a big impression and recently signed a new 1-year contract with the club, with a new title of Defence and Collisions coach. It’s great to see Irish coaches working in technical roles such as this at a top-level. That knowledge can hopefully help the Irish provinces and national team at some stage. Still only 36, Jackman has a long coaching career ahead of him. His rise looks set to continue.

Grenoble Profile: Bernard Jackman     Twitter: @bernardjackman


Grenoble’s last game of the season is in two week’s time, May the 4th, away to Toulouse. They’re 9th (joint-8th really) heading into that game, but nothing is decided yet. Depending on the outcome, and results elsewhere, they could finish anywhere from 8th to 11th. Their achievements look all the better when you compare them to the other promoted side, Mont de Marsan. They’ve won just 2 league games all season. Grenoble are a hugely ambitious club, and should push on again next year.


Photos: Vijay Photwalk, Paul Walsh.

Easterby Takes Over at Scarlets

Easterby (left) playing for Ireland in 2007. (c) Eoin Mulvey.

Simon Easterby has been promoted to the position of Head Coach of the Scarlets following Nigel Davies’ move to Gloucester. The appointment marks a swift rise in the coaching ranks for the ex-Ireland flanker, who has been the Scarlets’ Defence Coach for the last two seasons. Easterby is still only 36, having retired at the end of the ’09/10 season due to a knee injury. That final playing season with the Scarlets saw the Yorkshire native in a player-coach role (helping with the forwards), so the progression into the backroom staff was natural.

Next season will see three foreign coaches in charge of the Irish provinces, so it’s encouraging to see an Irish coach being given a chance like this. Easterby’s appointment means there’ll be four Irish coaches in charge of British teams next season, with Conor O’Shea at Harlequins, Mark McCall at Saracens and Michael Bradley at Edinburgh. With our own provinces keen to bring in outside influences, it’s vital that young Irish coaches are getting these chances.

Easterby always looked like an ideal candidate to move into coaching after his playing career. Capped 65 times for Ireland, Easterby was a tough, uncompromising blindside. He always played with awareness and intelligence. His leadership was highlighted by five seasons as Scarlets captain, as well as leading the Irish team in ’05 with O’Connell and O’Driscoll out injured. The manner in which he forced his way into the ’05 Lions test team, after being a late call-up when Lawrence Dallaglio broke his ankle, showed his determination.

Rhys Priestland and George North

Easterby will be working with talented players like Rhys Priestland and George North at the Scarlets. (c) Sum_of_Marc.

The past two seasons have seen the Scarlets finish 5th in the PRO12, but importantly, their defence improved greatly in the season just finished. In the ’10/11 campaign, Easterby’s first in charge of defence, the Scarlets leaked 453 points and 43 tries. This season they reduced those figures to 373 and 30 tries.  In the Heineken Cup, ’10/11 saw Scarlets concede 24 tries and 191 points. This season, that was improved to 9 tries and 124 points. Those are distinct numerical improvements but there has been more to it than stats.

There were several fantastic defensive efforts throughout this season, with one standout being the 16-13 loss to Leinster in February. That day, Leinster needed a brilliant performance from Fergus McFadden, including a last-gasp winning penalty, to overcome a stifling Scarlets effort. The Welsh region’s ‘D’ that day had Easterby’s influence stamped all over it: sheer determination combined with intelligence. A single moment of stupidity from Phil John meant the Scarlets came away with nothing. But performances like that saw Easterby’s reputation in Wales rise.


The Scarlets’ defensive performance against a McFadden-led Leinster in February was impressive. (c) Ken Bohane.

The Scarlets have built a youthful-looking backroom team around Easterby. Ex-Wales winger Mark Jones will be the Backs Coach. His career has followed a similar trajectory to Easterby’s. He was the Scarlets captain in ’09/10 but was forced to retire at the same time as Easterby, also because of a knee injury. Jones went straight into the Scarlets coaching set up as Skills Coach. The 47-times capped Welsh international was part of 2008’s Grand Slam winning team and is still only 32.

36-year-old Danny Wilson joins the region to take up the role of Forwards Coach. He was with the Dragons in the same capacity last season and is the current Wales U20 Head Coach. Wilson doesn’t share his fellow coaches strong playing backgrounds, but is well regarded as a coach having worked with London Welsh , the WRU Academy and various national underage teams.

36-year-old Brad Harrington is another part the backroom set-up. The Australian had a three year spell with Leinster from ’04 to ’07 and also worked with Ireland before the ’07 World Cup. The Scarlets are expected to add another specialist Skills Coach in the coming weeks. It’s a relatively young and inexperienced group of coaches, but in many ways it mirrors the state of the Scarlets’ playing squad for next season.


Much has been made of the weakening of the Welsh regions, with many big name players leaving for foreign shores. That is a worry for the WRU, but in a Grand Slam year, Wales continue to produce young talent. Easterby has some exciting players to work with at the Scarlets. In Tavis Knoyle, Rhys Priestland, Scott Williams, Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, George North and the returning Morgan Stoddart, they have a back-line that any team would be envious of. Up front, there may be some work to do in terms of recruitment.

Having lost three second-rows in Damian Welch, Lou Reed and Dominic Day, as well as marauding No.8 Ben Morgan, Easterby will have to find some grunt to supply his backs. The likes of Josh Turnbull, Aaron Shingler and captain Matthew Rees will have to step up more consistently. Still, the Scarlets could certainly do with one or two gritty forwards to complement their talented line-breakers. There’s immediate work for Easterby to get stuck into. Best of luck Simon, Irish fans will be watching with interest!


Photos courtesy: Sum_of_Marc, Ken Bohane.

The Exiled Irish: Stand Up For the Ulster Men

John Andress, pictured playing for Harlequins, is now at the Exeter Chiefs. (c) Mike Davies.

It’s clear that Ulster are a club side making long strides of progress year on year. Next weekend could see the province secure a place in the Heineken Cup final for the first time since winning the trophy in 1999. While we have to praise the northern province for bringing through home-grown players like Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave and Paul Marshall, amongst others, it’s also obvious that Ulster’s foreign imports have played a huge role in the success.

If Ulster continue to grow they could join Leinster at the forefront of the club game. That would in turn increase the difficulty for young players to break through at the province. Coupled with their overseas signings, it may mean more Ulster-based players looking for moves abroad. In this week’s Exiled Irish installment, I look at four Ulster-bred players who have moved to the Aviva Premiership. As always, opinions on all of these players, and any I have missed, are hugely welcome. If you watch plenty of Premiership rugby, how do you rate these players?


Ryan Caldwell

Caldwell joined Bath at the start of this season after opportunities at Ulster had dried up. The 27-year-old originally broke into the set-up at his home province in 2005, eventually becoming first-choice for the ’07/08 and ’08/09 seasons. Two Ireland caps followed in May 2009, against Canada and the USA. However, the signings of Dan Tuohy and then Johann Muller pushed Caldwell down the pecking order and he made just 6 appearances in the ’10/11 season. Caldwell decided to move on to new pastures, taking up Baths’s offer and he has thrived since.

The 6’7″ lock has become an integral part of the set-up at The Rec thanks to his physicality and lineout skills. He has been ever-present in the first team, playing all six of the Heineken Cup fixtures and scoring two tries. While Bath haven’t had a vintage season, sitting 7th in the Premiership with one game left and winning only two of their Heineken Cup games, Caldwell has clearly benefited from his move. Another strong effort next season might see the second-row back in contention for international honours.

Bath Profile: Ryan Caldwell     Twitter: @Ry_caldwell


Gareth Steenson

Steenson in action against Harlequins last season. (c) David Coldrey.

Coming through at underage level, it seemed nailed-on that Steenson was going to represent Ireland at the highest level. The outhalf was top points scorer at both the 2004 and 2005 U21 World Cups. In ’04, he guided Ireland to the final, where a New Zealand side including Luke McAllister and Jerome Kaino denied them a famous win. He subsequently graduated from the Ulster Academy as a genuine prospect. However, David Humphreys was still bossing it on the pitch for Ulster so Steenson took the ambitious leap of joining Championship side Rotherham Titans for the’06/07 season.

That move proved a success as Steenson amassed 264 points before joining the Cornish Pirates. That stint lasted also lasted single season before the ambitious Exeter Chiefs secured the young outhalf’s signature for the ’08/09 season. Steenson was key to the Chiefs to promotion in ’09/10, scoring 24 points in the play-off final. The Ulster man’s first season at Premiership level was a further success as the Chiefs finished 8th and Steenson was again top points scorer. This year,the 27-year-old has lost his place due to the brilliant form of Argentinian flyhalf Ignacio Mieres, limiting Steenson to just 7 starts. The Dungannon native is contracted to the Heineken Cup-bound club for next season and will hope to reclaim his place in the team.

Chiefs Profile: Gareth Steenson     Twitter: @steeno10


Neil Best


Best (right) during his time at Northampton. Alongside him here is fellow Ulster man Roger Wilson. (C) Henry Southgate.

It might surprise some Irish supporters that Best is still playing, but he’s actually only 33. He made his debut at Ulster in 2002 and would go on to make 122 appearances for the province, winning a Celtic Cup and a Celtic League. The flanker made his Ireland debut against the All Blacks in 2005 and was capped 18 times, including 4 substitute appearances off the bench at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Northampton enticed the aggressive back-row to the Premiership for the ’08/09 season and Best quickly established himself as first-choice, winning the European Challenge Cup in 2009. An 18-week ban for eye-goughing was an obvious lowlight.

In 2009, he captained Ireland ‘A’ to Churchill Cup glory in the United States. For the ’10/11 season, 6’3″ Best dropped down to the Championship to join current club Worcester Warriors. He helped his new team to promotion at the first time of asking. The Warriors have retained Premiership status for next season, with a likely final position of 10th. A broken arm has meant only 10 starts for Best this season, but he still has plenty to offer in terms of leadership and physicality. A brick wall of a man.

Warriors Profile: Neil Best


John Andress

A current teammate of Steenson’s at the Exeter Chiefs, Andress also played alongside the outhalf at the 2005 U21 World Cup. The tighthead prop was on Ulster’s books for the ’05/06 season, but a reputation as someone with a poor attitude meant no appearances for the province. He moved to then-Championship side the Chiefs in 2007 and two impressive season at that level resulted in a switch to Premiership outfit Harlequins at the beginning of the ’09/10 campaign. Andress made 19 starts in his first year in London, but that dropped to 11 the following season.

The Belfast native made a return to the Chiefs for this season, but again opportunities have been limited (8 starts), mainly due to the strong form of Hoane Tui. That has led to Andress’ decision to join Neil Best at the Worcester Warriors next season, where he will expect first-team rugby. Andress is capped for Ireland ‘A’, winning the Churchill Cup with Best in 2009. A senior call-up has never followed. However, some strong displays from the 28-year-old next season would mean Ireland could create better depth at tighthead. Andress will be closely watched.

Chiefs Profile: John Andress     Twitter: @JANDRESS84


Photos courtesy: Henry Southgate, Mike Davies, David Coldrey.