By Damian Dolan
At the Athletic Ground, Richmond
London Irish are back in English rugby’s top flight. Declan Kidney’s task now is to keep them there or risk the club’s return to west London falling flat.
The Exiles clinched promotion to the Gallagher Premiership with victory at Richmond on Good Friday.
Irish move in as tenants at Brentford’s 17,250-seater Community Stadium on Lionel Road near Kew Bridge in the summer of 2020 – ending their 20-year tenure at Reading’s Madejski Stadium.
Key now is to ensure that the club is playing Premiership rugby next year.
“We want to be in the Premiership when we move into Brentford in 15 months time, so staying in the Premiership will obviously be a big thing,” said director of rugby Kidney.
To ensure that scenario, Irish will have to overcome the “mountain” that is the Premiership – with Kidney likening winning the Greene King IPA Championship to merely getting to “basecamp”.
Talks are currently on-going between the Premiership, Championship and RFU to increase the Premiership to 13 teams – the current 12 Premiership clubs plus London Irish.
A two-legged play-off between the bottom Premiership team and the Championship winners would determine relegation and promotion.
But Irish will not want to rely on such changes for their Premiership place in 2020, and they could be about to spend big to ensure their top-flight status. The club is reported to have received up to £18m from the CVC investment in Premiership Rugby.
Irish were relegated from the Premiership a year ago with just three wins, with Kidney overseeing the last few matches of that campaign.
London Irish are back in the Premiership!!! Declan Kidney’s Exiles beat Richmond 46-7 to seal promotion @LiRFC @Champrugby @premrugby @LondonIrishARFC @SeanOBrien1987 @LISCRugby pic.twitter.com/M2NNNeSxwX
— the Irish World (@theirishworld) April 19, 2019
“I had the experience at the tail end of last season of being beaten four out of five matches, and there’s not much Craic in that,” he said.
“We know we have to go up a percentage both in terms of strength and conditioning, skill level and how we perform the little things that matter in a match.”
Confirmed reinforcements are Scotland prop Allan Dell, full back Curtis Rona (three caps for Australia), scrum half Nick Phipps, capped 71 times by Australia, and Ireland international flanker Sean O’Brien.
Their arrivals may be delayed, however, by the World Cup in Japan which lasts from 20 September to 2 November. They will need to be “managed” says Kidney, who accepts that the “percentage is low that they’ll all arrive fit”.
Others linked with the club are Fijian-born Waisake Naholo, capped 26 times by New Zealand, and former Ulster fly half Paddy Jackson. Wallaby lock Adam Coleman is reportedly another target.
Irish will certainly be shopping for another experienced number ten to supplement Stephen Myler, with Ian Keatley heading to Italy.
But Kidney played down speculation of a wave of new signings arriving at Sunbury, and has backed the current squad of players to backbone the club’s campaign.
“It’s not like we’re going to bring in a whole trench of players – the players with us now are going to see us through the first quarter of next year,” he said.
“The onus is on us to work with what we have, build on what we’ve done this year and the things we’ve put in place. There’s no one in that dressing room fooling ourselves that we’re the finished article.”
London Irish chief executive Brian Facer did confirm that the club expects to make further player announcements over the “next few weeks”.
“We’ve done everything we can do to recruit the best team we can,” he said.
“We’re not looking for survival, we’re looking to consolidate in the Premiership. We want to get as high as we can; the main thing is we don’t want to finish twelfth.”
— the Irish World (@theirishworld) April 19, 2019
Facer called the move back to west London and Brentford’s Community Stadium as a “game changer” for the club, allowing it to negotiate a more favourable commercial deal than it enjoyed at the Madejski Stadium with regards to gate money, and bar and food revenue.
“It’s a different ball game from a commercial point of view for us. We’ve got a lot of fans who live around here [west London],” he said.
While Facer is a supporter of the promotion and relegation “dog fight” – something lacking from the Guinness Pro14 as a product – he is in favour of the league increasing to 13 clubs with a play-off between the bottom side in the Premiership and the Championship winners.
“I’d like to be a club that isn’t worried about it because we’re not sitting at the bottom of the table. The best thing is to be in the top six,” he said.
Irish confirmed their return to the top flight with a 46-7 win over Richmond in front of more than 2,700 supporters, most of whom were supporting the visitors.
The Exiles ran in eight tries at the Athletic Ground – a venue just a few stops down on the 65 bus from the Brentford Community Stadium, which is fast becoming a mark on the Brentford-Kew horizon.