Exiles on the verge of new era
In Reading's Madejski Stadium on Wednesday night, London Irish play Leeds Carnegie in the second leg of the Championship final. In recent years this scrap to get into the Premiership has given us almost macabre entertainment such was Bristol's capacity to trip over their shoelaces.
In 2014 and 2015 they topped the regulation phase of the league with room to spare only to lose the final to underdogs. They finally got over the line last year. And will have to do it all again, having finished bottom of the top flight pile.
So last week London Irish went into this two-legged affair wary of doing the splits. Step one, on a very slippery surface at Headingley on Wednesday night, had shades of Bristol about it, with the Exiles having palpitations before coming from behind to win by 11 points. Step two this week should be more straightforward: they are unbeaten at home in the league this season; they won well in this fixture in November; the head-start is a decent one; and their opponents have suffered more on the injury front than Irish. All sorted then?
"Not at all - it's half-time and no more than that," says CEO Bob Casey. "We're in a good position and we've learned a lot from Wednesday night. We made quite a few errors but we fixed up things at half-time, and with Tom Court, Luke Narraway and George Robson to come off the bench we knew we'd finish strongly. Our S&C team have done a brilliant job all season so that really counts in the last quarter."
London Irish, the club, doesn't look like it used to. Shifted a stone's throw away from Sunbury where space was an issue, to Hazelbrook where they have 63 acres under their feet, it's storybook stuff. It took an age to get the deal over the line, but to fetch up where they did in that part of London beggars belief.
Not only do they have a very comfortable home, where 4G and natural grass - a lot of natural grass - sit side by side across five full-size pitches as well as 11 kids' pitches, they have somewhere to host parties. It could be a training base for a World Cup squad, as it was in 2015 for Wales, Fiji and the All Blacks, or it could be shifted a few gears to accommodate an NFL side, like the New York Jets when they were in London to play the Miami Dolphins soon after the ground opened two years ago. The GAA are regular visitors as well.
It is the perfect spot to house both amateur and professional sides of the house. The former has always been a juggernaut, from minis to seniors. The latter, less so. The grim reality of this presented itself before 2015 was out the door. The job of bouncing back starts with looking up Plan B, the prompt for which comes when Plan A has taken on a certain inevitability.
"We had won 30 per cent of our Premiership matches for about four seasons so we were always everyone's favourites to go down," Casey says of last season. "But we felt that if the environment could gel and if the new signings could stay fit we had a good chance. Unfortunately things didn't transpire that way. By Christmas we had put together a relegation plan so that the minute we were relegated we could act on that plan very swiftly to make it as painless as possible. And then, end of June, Brendan (Venter) was here, and we've never looked back since.
"We went to all the clubs who had been relegated - Saints, Harlequins, Newcastle, Bristol - and we spoke to the CEOs, and the directors of rugby, and as many people as we could, to try and figure out what the lessons were, how best to go about it, (to learn) as much as we could about the Championship. So when the players all came back on July 1, and with new players we have a stronger squad this season than last season because it's taken time to weed out some players and bring in the spine of a team, we'd come up with a very good plan with Brendan and Nick Kennedy. And we've implemented it, players and staff, to the letter."
It revolved around creating a winning culture by the way they trained first; and second it helps if you're implementing it in a league where it's a lot easier to win. So if you need to review and rebuild then one tier below is actually a useful place to do it. The trick is to make sure that the first target, promotion, is a one-year journey.
Providing they don't collapse on Wednesday it then becomes all about returning to the Premiership, aiming for mid-table stability. Irish don't have the cash to throw at a raft of marquee names so the minimum is a good support system and an on-pitch plan that players can believe in.
This is where Venter brings his Saracens strategy to the table. It was when he was Director of Rugby there that he brought in Bill Gerrard, professor of business and sports analytics at Leeds University, who previously worked with Billy Beane of Moneyball fame at the Oakland As.
In a nutshell it applies a rigorous statistics-based approach. So currently Venter is analysing what works in the Premiership, and the evidence is that getting out of your own half before you attack is key to success. This season the Exiles have been largely risk averse in sight of their own sticks. Selling this approach to someone like James Marshall, who arrived in Hazelwood this season from the free-wheeling Hurricanes, is impossible without the evidence to back it up: they're doing this because it's what works.
Marshall has been a good signing. As has fullback Tommy Bell, who kicks the ball like it's the most natural thing in the world. If in rugby you can combine the trio of good defence, good set-piece and accurate goal-kicking then you can compete. Maintaining that in the Premiership is an unforgiving task.
"I went in to this with my eyes wide open," Casey says. "It's a bit like Conor O'Shea going to Italy. I knew that the Premiership had left us behind. It's a beast now. It's frightening. The (financial) losses from the clubs are phenomenal but I'm passionate about this club and I knew we had the ability to create a really good environment, which we've done. If we perform on Wednesday we can move on."
The journey has been facilitated thus far by a rescue mission by men in suits. Multi-millionaire Mick Crossan, a long-time club member, led the consortium that took over the club in 2013. They didn't project themselves as the next Toulon. It's been a slow burner.
"They came and invested and probably saved the club," Casey says. "If you think: I retired in 2012 and 18 players left that year. The following year 10 left. And all the Academy stars: Jonathan Joseph, Marland Yarde, Anthony Watson, Matt Garvey, Alex Corbisiero . . . all of these guys gone. So what are you left with? Between the senior players and the young guys leaving you had a bunch in the middle who don't have much of a connection with the club. There wasn't much in terms of leadership and identity and that was a part of the plan in bringing back (coaches) Nick Kennedy, Paul Hodgson, and Dec Danaher, because there has to be an identity."
Which raises a speed-bump. When the human traffic in rugby started to pick up in the late 1990s it was apparent that London Irish would have to review where they stood. In those early days of the pro game there was a flood of players from this country heading to the club. It was more like the last days of the Roman empire than the first days of a new world. It dried up when the IRFU's alarm went off, belatedly, telling them to get the lads home and stick them on provincial contracts. Thereafter to the travelling player the Exiles became just another pro club, albeit one with an Irish identity. And to the (English) RFU, who sponsor the London Irish Academy - which is now thriving - the idea of developing players for another union makes zero sense.
"We're exiles; we're Irish at the core, the welcome you'll get and our values are Irish, but we have to be realistic," Casey says. "We have a handful of Irish second generation players and as much as we want more Irish players here we haven't been able to attract them. So a lot of the staff would be first or second generation Irish, but realistically? We have a very good relationship with David Nucifora and Joe (Schmidt), but they're very much about winning rugby matches and they don't quite see where we fit into that. And that's their prerogative. Who can argue with that? Irish rugby is in a brilliant place. It's the envy of many European countries. It really is."
The job for the Exiles meantime is to make them the envy of other clubs. Casey is on his last lap there, and will come back to Dublin this summer when he has sorted in his head whether to stay in sport or go into the corporate world. He will leave a lasting and hugely positive impression at a club where he went from captain to CEO in jig time: two years first working for Mick Crossan's Powerday, who sponsor the club, and then into Hazelwood as operations director.
From early in his career Casey has had a mentor as well as an executive coach. When the end was coming he got himself into a top-ranked business school to do an advanced management programme. On his watch in London Irish, Hazelwood came on stream, the club broke new ground in playing a Premiership game in America (against Saracens in New Jersey's Red Bull Arena, where Ireland play the USA on June 10) and they peaked at 12,000 for a St Patrick's Day crowd in the Madejski Stadium.
If relegation was a blot then leaving Reading and heading to Brentford is top of Casey's CV - the most significant step since the club got on the professional train. You may recall when they were tenants of Harlequins at the Stoop: the place would be rocking when the Exiles were there and library-like by comparison when it was Quins' turn to play in their own stadium. When that arrangement came to an end it was off to Reading - a fine stadium but a trek from their home. And it has never quite caught on. Three months ago they got planning permission from Hounslow Council to ground share with Brentford FC in the new 20,000-seater community stadium due to open in 2019.
"It's an incredible location, in between Chiswick and Twickenham, and it's back to our roots," Casey says. "The highest spend per capita at sports events (in England) is south west London, which has 2.5 million people. Reading is 250,000 people. It's a game changer for the club. You have the Irish community in London and the wider exile community, all the Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, all there. It will be brilliant for us."
Wednesday night should get the ball rolling. And looking like they belong in the Premiership next season will keep it heading in the right direction.
Sunday Indo Sport