It has been a frustrating festive period for London Irish.
Heading into Christmas, they lost the potential 10-point swing result at the bottom of the table with Worcester Warriors, 23-8, before narrowly missing out on a much-needed win at home to Newcastle Falcons, falling to a 15-20 defeat at the Madejski Stadium.
It has left Irish 10 points adrift at the bottom of the table with 10 regular season games left in their Premiership campaign.
Another worrying factor is the improved form of Worcester, who currently sit in 11th, but a win or two for Irish over the next two months and Northampton Saints, who look to be in freefall currently, could be sucked into the relegation battle, too.
Director of rugby Nick Kennedy and his coaching team have an unenviable task on their hands over the next five months, but with a three-game swing all that separates them from the teams they are chasing, Premiership survival is not a lost hope yet.
We look at five steps Irish could take to help move themselves out of the drop zone and into the welcoming realm of midtable.
Call in help from former club stars
Kennedy and his staff have done an excellent job of rebuilding Irish after the club’s relegation in 2016 and it is a young group with a bright future in the game, but could former Irish stalwarts Paul Gustard and Mike Catt offer a helping hand?
Irish have scored less points and less tries than any other club in the Premiership, whilst they have conceded more in both categories than, again, any other Premiership club this season. It is unfair to put this all on coaches and like any club that gets promoted to the Premiership, the squad is undermanned in certain areas and lacks the quality that other sides further up the table can call upon.
That said, could Gustard and Catt help bring a spark?
Gustard recently spent a few days with Northampton, attempting to try and cure their defensive ails, and would surely be keen to help his former side. He and Catt will both have duties with England and Italy respectively soon, but if they could be lured to Hazelwood in the build-up to Irish’s European games, they might be able to try something new and provide a spark.
Tap up old connections
Another connection that could, perhaps, be utilised, is former Irish coach Richard Whiffin, who is currently the academy manager at Gloucester.
Gloucester are sitting on an enviable senior academy, stacked with talented players, some of whom are ready for more senior action and who – as of yet – haven’t been able to crack Johan Ackermann’s regular match-day squad.
If Whiffin could persuade Ackermann and David Humphreys that Charlie Beckett and Tom Hudson would benefit from a loan stint in south-west London, they would be valuable additions to the Irish squad.
Beckett, a former England U20 second row, would provide Irish with work rate in their engine room, a strong carrying presence and a player capable of running a more aggressive defensive system, the latter two of which have seemed to be missing for Irish in their tight five this season.
Hudson has been featuring for Gloucester, but with both Jason Woodward and Tom Marshall now fit, it seems as if his playing opportunities will, understandably, diminish. His incisive counter-attacking was key for Gloucester earlier in the season and he would offer a different dimension to the more controlled full-backs – Tommy Bell and Greig Tonks – currently playing for Irish.
Mid-season southern hemisphere recruits
RugbyPass understands that Irish are hoping to seal moves for two players in the next week or two, one of whom we believe to be Bulls scrum-half Piet van Zyl.
There are other players potentially available, too, some of whom could provide the dynamism that Irish are currently lacking.
Two casualties of Western Force’s demise who are yet to find a new home are energetic openside Kane Koteka and powerful N8 Ben McCalman. McCalman still has a year to go on his Australian contract, so would be a more complicated addition, but Koteka is an underrated player who was kept under the radar in Perth by the ever-impressive Matt Hodgson.
Elsewhere in Australia, Rebels hooker Siliva Siliva and Reds wing Chris Kuridrani have both missed out on their sides’ initial squads for the 2018 Super Rugby season, potentially making both available, at least on short-term deals.
In New Zealand, there are similar situations for Billy Guyton, Matt Vaega, Chase Tiatia, Sean Wainui and Geoffrey Cridge, whilst van Zyl’s Bulls teammate Arno Botha is reportedly also available in South Africa.
Give youth its chance to turn around the club’s fortunes
After Irish travel to Leicester this weekend, they are confronted by four-straight weeks of games where they will be able, if they want, to experiment with their line-up.
They face Krasny Yar home and away in the Challenge Cup, before Anglo-Welsh Cup fixtures with Wasps and Cardiff Blues. On the other side of that four-week period is a Premiership match with Sale Sharks at the Madejski, before Northampton away and then a home match with Worcester.
That three-week Premiership block is season-defining for Irish.
Before then, roll the dice on Josh Basham, Isaac Curtis-Harris and Jack Cooke in the pack, try the half-back pairing of Rory Brand and Theo Brophy-Clews and keep exposing Ben Loader to senior rugby. If they impress over that four-week period in Europe and the Anglo-Welsh, then Premiership spots are up for grabs.
There’s no denying this is a risky approach with those players lacking experience, but there’s a lot to be said about the fearlessness of youth. They are all good players and if they can make a statement in Europe and the Anglo-Welsh, why not give them a go against Sale, Northampton and Worcester?
Rejig defensively to be more aggressive
It is easy to sit and write that a team should be more aggressive in defence. That they should win more collisions, turnover more ball and not sit off and passively defend, but it’s a lot more difficult in practice to prepare a team to be able to do that consistently.
Irish’s defence was much improved against Newcastle this past week, but it has been an issue this season and it came to a head in their crunch match with Worcester at Sixways before Christmas, where the Warriors had all the time in the world to play.
This is bold and many will say crazy, but could Joe Cokanasiga defend in the midfield on first phase ball?
It has been an area where Irish’s defence has come unstuck regularly this season.
The ability to blitz up and tackle first and second receivers upon receiving the ball, or at least getting close enough to cause the fly-half to hesitate or make a mistake, can wreck attacking game plans. There is a lot of decision-making that goes into blitzing as a defender and it’s a steep learning curve to ask Cokanasiga to take on, especially halfway through a season.
It would also potentially allow a player like Luke McLean to take up Cokanasiga’s place on the wing in those defensive sets and he is well-skilled in dropping back and dealing with the kicking game an opposition fly-half might look to utilise. His own kicking game would be another option in the back three if the attacking side should look to play territory.
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