Tag Archives: James Sandford

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: Youth XV Pack

Mike Ross

Mike Ross was playing for Harlequins as recently as 2009. Will any of the players below match his success? (c) Andy Scrutton.

Following on from yesterday’s Youth XV Backline, The Touchline selects a forward pack of young Irish players who are currently contracted in England. Again, the key here is to highlight the fact that there is Irish talent playing outside of this country. In Ireland we can often be quite blinkered in our support of the provinces and the national team. Irish players should be encouraged and supported in moves abroad. The more professional players we have the better.

Check out the first Exiled Irish piece of the series for four examples of Irish players whose moves abroad have been particularly successful (two of whom would have been included here if they weren’t already highlighted there!).


1. Shane Cahill

A Leinster Schools Senior Cup winner with Blackrock in 2005 alongside Luke Fitzgerald, Niall Morris and Dave Moore, Cahill went on to represent the Irish Colleges team in ’08. Several years playing AIL with Blackrock RFC followed, before the prop had a trial with the Doncaster Knights. His strength and power impressed and Cahill signed for the ’10/11 campaign. At the start of this season, the Rotherham Titans swooped to sign the Dubliner. Competing with fellow Irish man Jamie Kilbane for the loosehead slot, Cahill has come out on top, starting all four of the recent promotion play-off games. The 24-year-old’s impressive form has resulted in him penning a contract extension with the Titans this week.

Titans Profile: Shane Cahill     Twitter: @cahill_shane

2. Jason Harris-Wright

The Ireland U19 and U20 international spent several seasons in the senior Leinster set-up, making a total of 10 appearances, even coming off the bench for the closing minutes of the 2011 Heineken Cup final. However, the signing of Sean Cronin at the start of this season convinced the 23-year-old to join Bristol in the Championship. Harris-Wright has been competing with ex-Blues hooker Ross Johnston for the No. 2 jersey, but has featured far more than he would have done at Leinster. Having played plenty of underage rugby in the backrow, Harris-Wright is a dynamic ball carrier. With Bristol currently involved in promotion play-offs, we may see him in the Premiership next year.

Bristol Profile: Jason Harris-Wright     Twitter: @jayharriswright

3. Royce Burke-Flynn

The 25-year old prop showed his potential for Ireland at Schools and U19 levels. Having graduated from St. Michael’s, he joined the Leinster Academy. During his time with there, he had a short-term spell in South Africa with Western Province. In 2009, with little opportunity at Leinster, Burke-Flynn moved to Italian outfit Livorno. The following season he joined French Pro D2 team Montauban before signing for Doncaster Knights for the current campaign. The 6’3″, 122kg Dubliner has been rotated with Alex Brown at tighthead, while also making several appearances at loosehead. His versatility and strength make him worth keeping an eye on, especially with Ireland’s current propping situation.

Knights Profile: Royce Burke-Flynn     Twitter: @RoyceBurkeFlynn


4. James Sandford

This is a 23-year-old with a serious CV. After captaining both the Ulster and Irish Schools sides he was named the Northern Bank Schools Player of the Year in ’06/07. Sandford went on to captain the Ulster U20s and play two years at Ireland U20 level. 2008 saw him win an Irish Examiner Junior Sports Star award. Following a disruptive shoulder injury, the Ulster man took a calculated risk in joining the Rotherham Titans for the ’10/11 season. The move paid off as the 6’6″ second-row’s 10 starts and 2 tries earned him a move to Premiership side London Irish this season. He has made 8 appearances to date and recently signed a new two-year deal. A physical player who is a great lineout jumper, he also has a big engine and a big future.

Irish Profile: James Sandford     Twitter: @JamesSandford4

5. Eoin Sheriff

An Irish U18, U19 and U20 international, Sheriff came through the Leinster Academy, and made one substitute against the Warriors in 2010. He subsequently played AIL with both Lansdowne and Shannon before joining Premiership outfit Saracens on a short-term trial midway through this season. The 6’5″ lock has made two appearances since, starting an LV= Cup match and coming off the bench in the Premiership. He has done enough to have his time extended at Saracens, although the length of the deal remains unclear. Hopefully he can continue to impress and secure a long-term contract.

Saracens Profile: Eoin Sheriff

6. John Downey

An explosive back-rower, Downey came through at Presentation Bray, representing Leinster at Schools and U19 levels. In 2007, he played for the Ireland U19s alongside the likes Eoin O’Malley, Ian Nagle and Mike Sherry. A breakthrough in the Leinster set up never came, although Downey represented Ireland Colleges in 2009 alongside Robin Copeland. He moved to England to join Richmond for the ’09/10 season, doing enough to earn a move to Championship side Esher the following season. The 23-year-old has been in and out of the squad this season as Esher have fought what now looks like a losing battle against relegation. Still, Downey has forged a promising career for himself.

Esher Profile: John Downey


7. Peter Synnott

A team mate of Downey’s at Esher, Synnott has made 14 starts this season.  A Leinster Schools and U20 representative in the same age-group as Ian Madigan, Dominic Ryan and Tom Sexton, Synnott went on to play for Leinster ‘A’. However, a contract with Leinster never materialised and the back-row played in the AIL with Clontarf for a couple of years. He secured a deal with Esher at the start of this season and has performed well so far, even taking over the place-kicking duties recently! With Esher almost certainly getting relegated from the Championship, he will hope to catch another club’s eye for next season.

Twitter: @synnott_peter     Impressive Deadlift Video: Youtube


8. Michael Noone

An Irish U19 and U20 international in the same year as Peter O’Mahony, Dave Kearney and Ian Madigan, Noone has long been recognised as a great prospect. He represented Leinster right up to ‘A’ level but that’s where the chances dried up. That prompted his move to the Doncaster Knights at the start of this season and the 22-year-old has excelled in his 21 appearances so far. A typical Irish back-row, in that he is a powerful ball carrier who can play at 6 or 8, Noone has plenty of time on his side. He has agreed to join the Rotherham Titans next season, replacing his compatriot Robin Copeland. Noone will hope to have a similar impact to the Cardiff Blues-bound Irish man.

Knights Profile: Michael Noone     Twitter: @Mick8noone 


Photo courtesy:  Andy Scrutton.