Tuesday 23 January 2018

London Irish face day of reckoning in battle to dodge the drop

Conor O'Shea. Photo: PA
Conor O'Shea. Photo: PA

Paul Rees

Until a few years ago London Irish's jersey discreetly contained the logos of London Scottish and Richmond, a legacy of a nominal merger in 1999 when the latter two clubs went into administration and their Premiership franchises were absorbed by Irish.

The three clubs will be meeting in the Championship next season if Irish fail to beat Harlequins at the Madejski Stadium today or secure two bonus points and Newcastle emerge from Saracens with nothing. London Scottish and Richmond have rebounded from their fall, working their way through the leagues to be one step away from a return to a Premiership neither is yet equipped to rejoin.

It will be an emotional day in Reading for Conor O'Shea, the Harlequins director of rugby who spent 10 years at Irish as a player, captain, director of rugby and managing director, helping the club not only adjust to professionalism but ensuring that the amateur side, which was not part of the deal when a group of businessmen took control of the corporate side of things, had a future.

"I love that club," said O'Shea earlier this month before the sides met in the European Challenge Cup quarter-final. "I certainly do not want to see London Irish go down. I came over in 1995 to help it get into the top division and it has been there ever since. I gave so much time to it and want them to avoid the drop."

Since he spoke, Irish's plight has worsened, with defeat at Newcastle, and Harlequins could send them on their way. Even if Irish defeat Quins, who are playing for a place in the top six and European Champions Cup qualification and will not have their gaze on the Challenge Cup final with Montpellier later this month, they would still be below Newcastle, who start the day seven points ahead of them. The Falcons welcome Sale on the last day of the regular season, when Irish are at Wasps.

"We have shown in the last four months that we are a competitive side, but we are where we are in the table because of the poor start we made," said Exiles head coach Tom Coventry, who joined the club from the Chiefs in Waikato, having won two Super Rugby titles in his three years there. "We have not picked up enough bonus points on the way, but the quality of some of the rugby we have played demonstrates that we are a side of Premiership quality.

"Unfortunately we have not been consistent enough but we have two games to go and still have hope. We will be playing two very good sides, but we were not far away from Quins a couple of weeks ago. We believe we can get out of this."

Coventry is contracted for next season, but relegation would spawn uncertainty. While there is still arithmetical hope, the defeat at Newcastle two weeks ago, which summed up a campaign that has seen opportunities created and squandered, has left Irish not in control of their own destiny; having won fewer matches than the other sides in the Premiership, scored the fewest points and conceded the most - their position does not appear to be a false one.

"I am not thinking about my future, just Sunday's game," said Coventry. "While we still have a chance of being in the Premiership next season we have to focus on that. Should the worst happen, I imagine there would need to be discussions with the club about the future. I have enjoyed my time at Irish - a club with a great history. I would like to stay on, but as head coach I have to take responsibility for where we are in the table. If they think I am the right man to continue doing the job, fine. If not, it will be someone else's."

As a New Zealander, Coventry had not had to deal with the concept of relegation. Irish started the season playing with width and ambition in the manner of a Super Rugby side, but their first four fixtures were against top-five finishers the previous season. Four defeats, all by double-figure margins, forced a re-evaluation, but then injuries kicked in. Club captain George Skivington has not played since November, while World Cup-winning All Blacks prop Ben Franks is back in the squad for Sunday having been out since January.

"Injuries have not helped, but some of our defeats lately, at Worcester and Newcastle in particular, have been frustrating because we created so many chances," said Coventry. "We play positive rugby but confidence is not high."

Irish had enough opportunities at Worcester and Newcastle to secure a try bonus point, as well as win, freezing at times when the moment beckoned, and their failure was not down to coaching but the predicament they are in. Only victory will do against Quins, leaving Coventry with Coventry and its Ricoh Arena for salvation.


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