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'It's not a case of that': Irish review wounding Cokanasiga loss

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Declan Kidney hasn’t ruled out the possibility of Phil Cokanasiga rejoining London Irish sometime in the future after it was confirmed on Thursday that the 20-year-old had signed for Leicester Tigers for next season. The director of rugby had regularly spoken throughout the 2021/22 campaign about how the Exiles were becoming a place where young players didn’t have to leave in order to gain Test level selection with England.

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Academy graduates exiting London Irish to become England internationals at rivals Gallagher Premiership clubs had been the established trend before Kidney was installed as the boss in March 2018. The likes of Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Joe Cokanasiga were among the list of youngsters who had quit Irish as they felt their representative level ambitions would be best served elsewhere. 

That pattern appeared to have ended with the England squad selection this past year of the likes of Ollie Hassell-Collins, Chunya Munga, Tom Pearson and some others by Eddie Jones, who last week visited the London Irish training ground to run the rule over a contingent of prospects that now includes the viral star, Henry Arundell following his recent attention-grabbing try-scoring.   

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However, Phil Cokanasiga, the younger brother of Joe who switched to Bath to realise his England Test team ambitions, dented this progress being made by Irish when he was unveiled as a new Leicester Tigers signing for the 2022/23 season after making 17 appearances and scoring six tries over the course of the last three seasons where he also played a part in winning the Six Nations Grand Slam with the England U20s last summer.      

“London Irish was my first professional club and it will always hold a place close to my heart,” said Cokanasiga in his brief leaving statement, but Kidney hasn’t ruled out the possibility of the youngster coming back to them at some future point. “You are going to win some and lose some,” he told RugbyPass about the battle to keep all of his squad’s youngsters happy and believing that they can make it with England via London Irish rather than elsewhere.

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Sometimes players can get frustrated if they are not getting enough time but Phil knew he had a pathway here with us and he will have his own reasons for that [joining Leicester], but it is not like he is running away from the club. You always know a player’s reaction as well then too when they are leaving, you know if they want to go because they really want to go. It’s not a case of that. We wish Phil well for the future and who knows about him coming back here in years to come.” 

It was a May 2018 thrashing at The Rec when it hit Kidney square in the face about the calibre of talent that London Irish had developed for the benefit of other clubs. With their Premiership relegation already confirmed, the Exiles were thumped 63-19 at Bath, the club that had hoovered up the likes of Watson and numerous other Irish-nurtured stars. They vowed there and then to put a stop to the brain drain.

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There had been a complete drain leading into it when we started off over four years ago, we were wondering what was going on,” continued Kidney about the situation that had contributed to London Irish twice suffering relegation to the second tier in three seasons. “We went down and played Bath and Jonathan Joseph, Joe Cokanasiga was being talked a lot in terms of joining there too, Anthony Watson – you are just thinking that if London Irish over the years had managed to hang onto its younger players where would we sit now?

“Part of the yo-yo effect was why were players here and why did they leave? Part of the reason we identified was they needed players to look up to and so we had to bring in some senior players to it and even though some mightn’t have played as much as they wanted to, the effects of Sean O’Brien on the other members of the pack, it will be over the coming years that you will see that. 

“In the back, you can see the effect that Waisake (Naholo) had on the likes of Ollie Hassell-Collins and these guys coming through so the legacy that you leave behind you as a senior player is also very impressive. They have done that and they [the youngsrers] now know more of what is expected of them. 

“We have had a few fellas called into England camp over the last 18 months so it has shown that they don’t have to leave London Irish to get called into English camp, so we believe that with what we are developing within can be strong going forward in the future. 

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“When you started off four years ago you didn’t want to be talking about three and five and seven-year plans. You’d bore the pants off the fellas who were there but we are four years into it, our squad is becoming younger naturally but being younger is only one part of it, you have to be skilful and competitive and see then can you close the deal on something. That is what we are about.”

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