Tag Archives: Irish Abroad

The Exiled Irish: The Exiles

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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.

The Exiled Irish

Roger Wilson and Neil Best are two Irish players abroad, pictured playing for Northampton here. Wilson will join Ulster next season, while Best is now at Worcester. (c) Henry Southgate.

Irish rugby is often accused of an aversion to unleashing talented young players into high-level competition. Watching Super Rugby, it’s hard not to notice the amount of youngsters starting matches. For example, the Brumbies’ starting team against the Highlanders last Saturday included only 6 players over the age of 24. Meanwhile, Munster’s starting line-up against Connacht featured 12 players over the age of 24, a marked difference.

The simple fact is that with Ireland having just four professional teams,  three of whom are Heineken Cup regulars, opportunities are extremely limited for young players. Moving abroad in search of a contract is not a traditionally popular route for Irish players. However, it is increasingly becoming a valid option for ambitious youngsters. In the English Championship (second tier) there are currently over 20 Irish players contracted, with another 15 in the Aviva Premiership.  There’s also a handful of Irish professionals plying their trade in Italy and France.

It can only be a good thing for Irish rugby that these guys are actually playing professional rugby rather than wasting their careers on the bench or in an academy. Irish players’ agents need to be more aware of the opportunities abroad. While it’s never easy to move away from home, these players can earn a good living and enjoy a satisfying career, possibly earning a move back to their home province somewhere down the line.

Geordan Murphy

Geordan Murphy is another who has excelled abroad, for the Leicester Tigers. (c) Vincent Cornelius.

For older players frustrated with a lack of action at their provinces, a move abroad can breathe fresh life into their careers. The big tax break given to Irish players retiring at home probably prevents more of these moves happening. Many are often happy to spend the final years of their career as squad players in order to ensure they can reclaim that valuable 40%. That’s very understandable too.

Over the next few weeks, The Touchline will be looking into this issue in more depth. It’s important that Irish-qualified players abroad are recognised, those who have moved away from home to better their careers saluted. The IRFU have recognised this potential new avenue for international players  by appointing Mark Blair to keep an eye out for Irish-qualified talent in Britain. It is hoped that less players will slip under the radar.

For now, we look at four players whose moves away from Ireland have had obvious benefits to their careers. These are guys who have taken the plunge and looked outside of Ireland. While there are several examples of that risk being unsuccessful, here are some who have been rewarded.

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James Downey

Downey

Downey will join Munster next season. (c) Henry Southgate.

The physical inside centre is at a far later stage of his career than the three other players featured here. He’s a fine example of a player who struggled for first-team rugby in Ireland, took a risk by moving abroad and earned a move back to these shores. Downey’s career began at his native Leinster in 2003, but a lack of action resulted in a move to Connacht for the start of the 2004/05 season. Two frustrating campaigns followed before a brief stint with Munster in 2006.

Italian side Calvisano offered Downey a first-choice role and Heineken Cup rugby for the 06/07 season. Northampton were impressed with what they saw and signed him up for 07/08. That move has been hugely successful for the Dubliner, as he has become a key player for the Saints. He has won the European Challenge Cup and the LV= Cup during his five seasons in England, as well as a Churchill Cup with Ireland ‘A’. Munster have now signed Downey for next season, a well-earned move for a player unwilling to waste away on provincial benches at the start of his career.

Saints Profile: James Downey     Twitter: @jamesdowney23

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Robin Copeland

The blindside flanker/second-row is a former Leinster U18, U19 and U20 cap. He also represented the Irish College and Club sides during his time with St. Mary’s RFC of Dublin. Despite his spectacular form at AIL level, Copeland was continually ignored by Leinster’s senior set-up, convincing him to accept an offer to join Plymouth Albion in the English Championship for the 2010/11 season. He had a big impact in Devon, scoring 5 tries in his twenty appearances.

That earned him a move to the Rotherham Titans, also in the Championship, at the start of this season and the dynamic Copeland has gone from strength to strength. The 24-year-old has contributed 11 tries already, mainly from the blindside. His brilliant form has now earned him a move the the Blues for next season. Standing 6’5″ and weighing around 110kg, Copeland is extremely mobile for his size. If he can continue to improve at the Blues next season we may be hearing a lot more of his name in the next few years.

Titans Profile: Robin Copeland    Twitter: @robocopey

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Sean Dougall

Dougall is another joining Munster next season. (c) Neil Tunney.

Dougall is a current teammate of Copeland’s at the Titans, but like his back-row companion, he is moving away from Rotherham next season. Munster have swooped to sign the 22-year-old openside flanker. An Irish U18 and U19 international in the same age group as Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray, Dougall will be familiar with plenty of the Munster squad. Once with the Ulster Academy, Dougall moved to England in 2007 to join Leeds Carnegie in the Championship.

Two frustrating years of injury followed before a trial period with Rotherham gave him a fresh opportunity. Since officially joining the Titans in 2010, he has excelled at openside, even captaining the side on several occasions this season. At a time when there is regular media clamour for a ‘natural’ Irish openside to emerge, Dougall would appear to be of that breed. The back-row has signed a one-year deal with Munster so will have to set about proving himself quickly. He looks to have the hunger, fitness and intelligence to succeed.

Titans Profile: Sean Dougall     Twitter: @seandougall

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Niall Morris

An U18, U19 and U20 Irish international, Morris was always marked out as a potential professional. Indeed, the talented fullback/winger signed for Leinster and made several promising Magners league appearances in the 2009/10 and 2010/11 seasons, even scoring a couple of tries. However, the depth of competition in the back-three at his home province meant Morris looked for a move elsewhere. The Leicester Tigers were more than happy to oblige and Morris joined them last summer.

The 23-year-old has made 10 starts, as well as 4 substitute appearances, so far this season, scoring 5 tries. It’s unlikely that Morris would’ve had similar opportunities at Leinster.  He looks like a ready-made replacement for Tigers’ captain Geordan Murphy whenever he decides to call time on his career. Morris has a deceptively languid style on the pitch, reminiscent of Clement Poitrenaud at his best. This exciting player looks like a good bet to return to Ireland at some stage in his career, at both provincial and international level.

Tigers Profile: Niall Morris

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Photos courtesy: Henry Southgate, Neil Tunney, Vincent Cornelius.