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'Niall Horan, Eddie Jordan... famous friends pop down to say hello'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

Topsy Ojo is loving the craic now that London Irish are back in the English capital city and thriving at their new Brentford Community Stadium home. That’s not to suggest he wasn’t a fan of their old base at Reading – he played his entire career for the club at the Madejski Stadium and retains so many fond memories of all the thrills and spills that unfolded there.

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It’s just that the Irish are revelling in a fresh lease of life at their latest west London abode and very much enjoying being competitive at the right end of the table, they are threatening to clinch their best Premiership placing since the sixth spot finish bagged in 2011.

That was the season when ex-England winger Ojo was running in tries for fun, nabbing ten in the sort of vibrant top-flight campaign that has taken the club eleven years to now reprise. It’s been a slow reawakening, Irish enduring two dispiriting relegations to the Championship along the way.

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RFU Belonging – Back in the Game
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But the rebuild under Declan Kidney is now paying dividends and they are very much in the hunt for semi-final qualification. They are providing excellent value too as their 75-try haul was equal top-best with Saracens heading into this weekend’s round 22 fixtures, a schedule that sees them host defending champions Harlequins this Sunday.

Having enjoyed a record attendance of just over 15,000 last weekend against Northampton, Irish are braced for another bumper crowd and Ojo will be in the thick of it, not only pressing the flesh in his guise as club ambassador but also as co-proprietor of The 301, the popular pop-up bar he runs on the outside-the-stadium concourse with Conor Gilsenan.

For sure, it’s the matchday place to be. Only last weekend Niall Horan of One Direction tweeted to his 41.3million Twitter followers: “If you are in London you need to get to this. Pop down and see Topsy Ojo and Conor Gilsenan at The 301 Bar before and after the game.” It’s priceless publicity for Ojo’s new joint-venture, a business whose 301 name reflects the number of times the winger played for London Irish.

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Such is its popularity, it has quickly developed an enticing Cheers-like vibe where everyone knows your name and the Guinness – by far their best selling beverage – just flows and flows. “We have had a couple of famous friends, shall we say, pop down to say hello,” enthused Ojo to RugbyPass the other day when planning preparations to do it all again this Sunday with Quins visiting for the south-west London derby.

“Niall Horan has been down, Eddie Jordan came at our very first game. Lewis Capaldi as well. Dermot O’Leary is a big fan too, so that stuff helps and even the growth of the wider game as well, we do have I guess a lot of famous fans who follow rugby so one thing is to shine a light on that and to say as a sport that wants to continue to grow and develop, here are some guys that you might know who really follow us quite closely.”

It’s not just the celebrities either that have thronged the new place to be seen. The names of London Irish players past and present roll off of Ojo’s tongue when he lists those he has bumped into while pulling pints and being an enthusiastic host along with Gilsenan, another recently retired player whose own profile was given an upwards bump with his appearance as a contestant on this year’s The Apprentice with Alan Sugar.

“Justin Bishop, Paul Sackey, Dylan Armitage has been in,” began Ojo, tearing through a who’s who list of Irish players as quickly as he used to devour the space along the touchline to score in his playing days. “More recent players were Eamonn Sheridan, Fergus Mulchrone and Nick Rouse. The weekend just gone, who was in the house? Bob Casey was there, Barry Everitt has been down, and Paul Hodgson.

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“You’re talking about names of people that fans who followed the club through the era at Reading would resonate with but also now we can welcome the new players as well so the Saturday just gone, Curtis Rona, Adam Coleman, Ben Loader, guys like that, they all popped down as well so you are hopefully bridging that gap. Conor and I, that is exactly what we wanted – we wanted to create an environment like that where you have the past and the present and just give fans a really good experience.

“London Irish have always been a family club and we are rebuilding that. We’re generating that family atmosphere and it’s great for me to be a part of that. The bar goes hand in hand with my role as an ambassador which is to shine a light on the club when I can.

“Creating a hub and regenerating that camaraderie is great. We do that pre-game and then everyone goes in. Last weekend aside the boys are playing really well at home, winning a lot of games, so that helps, and then they come back to us afterwards and the craic continues.

“Conor said, ‘You’ll have the name – The 301 – because there is a story there and we all like stories’. But he is the publican, he is the driving force behind it absolutely, but we are in it 50/50, working really well together and it’s great to be able to share it with someone. It’s a really good partnership.”

Fourteen seasons Ojo spent involved with the London Irish first team and having rounded off that selfless journey with an April 2019 Championship win over Ealing Trailfinders, he has giddily embraced watching the current team now that fans are back at the ground following the end of lockdown.

“The guys I’m enjoying watching at the minute, Nick Phipps is playing incredibly well. He has become a bit of a heartbeat of the team, his leadership in terms of how he plays, in terms of how he drives the team. Really like Benhard van Rensburg at twelve and actually Curtis Rona as well, so that centre combination. 

“You see it with a lot of the teams now, if you can build good combinations in certain areas of the pitch it makes a massive difference to your team. Having those three, in particular, I know Curtis has been recently suspended but he is now back and those combinations are key to how the team functions. Those guys have played a key role in why Irish have been so good in the last little while. 

Declan was a great man to come in at that time,” added Ojo about the director of rugby Kidney, who has overseen the revival since 2018 of London Irish as a force in the English game. “You looked at what the project was, looked at Declan’s resume, his reputation, what he had achieved and you thought if there was a guy who could get to grips with it, he would be the perfect man.

“His combination with Les Kiss and the other coaches they have brought along on the journey with them, it’s just understanding how to rebuild the culture, rebuild the team, particularly with the new stadium project, so it’s not only getting things performing on the pitch but then understanding how that correlates to what the club is trying to build off it.

“He has done a great job in terms of building the squad, in terms of giving them direction and letting them flourish within that. That has been the biggest thing. He has given them the framework and said, ‘Right, it is up to you guys to drive this’. In the last couple of years they absolutely have.

“Given my role now it’s great that I’m able to talk more about the club in a really positive light. The new stadium, a team that is performing very well, a team that is competing at the higher end of the table, it’s a great position to be in. I’m really excited for everyone involved with the club in terms of where they are at. It’s the first full recovery year as well and the signs of recovery are really strong, really positive so the scope for what the club can go on to achieve in their new home, who knows. That is the exciting thing about it.”

Another encouraging recent development is Eddie Jones noticing the calibre of young players coming through at London Irish by calling the likes of Ollie Hassell-Collins, Tom Pearson, Will Goodrick-Clarke and Chunya Munga into recent England squads. None were capped but the fact they were noticed was quite the seachange. 

“That’s huge and you need that as a club. You hope that by your players performing well and putting their hand up that ultimately that recognition will come. In previous years a club like us would have seen our players need to leave for bigger clubs to achieve these international honours.

“But myself, the Armitage brothers and Nick Kennedy showed you don’t need to go and if you get things right at your own club, the call will come. It’s about guys just buying in, understanding that you all want to achieve the same goals, helping each other to get to that.”

Ojo managed two England caps on the 2008 tour to New Zealand and then settled into giving the Irish another eleven seasons of unstinting service after that. Now three years retired, the 36-year-old is pleased with how he handled the transition from playing to forging an alternative career. “I made peace with it very quickly” he explained.

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“The March after I retired lockdown hit so I look back now and say somehow I got that timing spot on, but in terms of career progression I’m in a really good place. This year the media work has taken off. I’ve been heavily involved across different channels and now work with ITV presenting the highlights show.

“I look back to all the conversations I had probably four, five, six years ago in terms of preparing so to be here now, to have the media stuff but also my coaching at my school, St John’s in Leatherhead, I’m doing a lot of things that I enjoy. It’s all in and around rugby but it is stuff that I knew a long time ago I wanted to do.

“I knew I wanted to do coaching and knew I wanted to work in the media, so to be able to be doing both of those and to be growing in both as well is really good. I’m enjoying where things are at the minute. I would have bitten your hand off if you told me I would be in this position years back, so I’m very happy to be doing what I’m doing at the minute.”

  • BT Sport is the home of Gallagher Premiership Rugby. The 2021/22 season continues with London Irish vs Harlequins live on BT Sport 1 from 3pm on Sunday. For more information visit bt.com/sport

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