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.
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
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
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
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.