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'We don't want be a feeding ground for other clubs': Irish out to ensure history doesn't repeat itself with latest crop of rising academy stars

By Liam Heagney

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Ex-Ireland and Munster boss Declan Kidney may be a relative novice to Gallagher Premiership rugby having only pitched up for work in England in March 2018 and then spending his first full season exiled to the Championship, but he knows enough of the history of London Irish to know that he must now have a consistently competitive side or risk losing the latest wave of youthful talent.

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It’s been a major pitfall for the Irish this last decade, ever since they went into reverse after a 2008 European Cup semi-final appearance was followed by defeat in the 2009 Premiership final. They have one of the best academies set-ups around but the stagnation of their first-team has resulted in that talent – especially their young backs – falling prey to rival clubs. 

Delon Armitage headed to Toulon in 2012, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph to Bath in 2013, and Joe Cokanasiga and Johnny Williams to Bath and Newcastle respectively in 2018 to name but five of the many names they nurtured who left for greener pastures.

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It’s a pattern that Kidney is conscious of as he nears the end of his second full Premiership in charge with youthful wings Ollie Hassell-Collins, a 21-year-old with 32 top-flight appearances and 14 tries, and Ben Loader, the 22-year-old with 30 Premiership runs and nine tries, regulars in a useful back three complemented by 23-year-old full-back Tom Parton, another academy graduate at Irish who has six tries from his 23 Premiership appearances.

Irish are currently seventh with four matches remaining and chasing down their best finish in the Premiership since the seventh spot they secured in 2011/12. It’s a task that starts on Tuesday night with the visit of defending champions Exeter to Brentford and Kidney is acutely aware of the need to finish as strongly as possible to send out the message that the Exiles really do mean business and are a genuine career home for its academy talent, not a shop window for others to flash the cash and lure them elsewhere.

Looking at the situation London Irish find themselves in near the end of a second term back in the top-flight that is an improvement on last season’s tenth-place finish, Kidney told RugbyPass: “Exeter are from a catchment where they don’t have a lot of competition. When you are in London it’s different because we have a couple of teams, Harlequins are just down the road and Saracens aren’t too far away with Ealing there too, so players have lots of choices.

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“What you want to try and do is the players that do come into your system you want to hang onto them. I wouldn’t say the progress London Irish have made is since when Les (Kiss) and I arrived. The club was already progressing and we just tried to add a little of ourselves to it.

“If we had Anthony Watson, Joe Cokanasiga, Johny Williams and Jonathan Joseph, if they were all here we would have a nice conundrum for selection. What we want to do is make sure we create an environment so that the work being done at underage level is for the benefit of the London Irish club and not be a feeding ground for other clubs.

“It’s not like soccer where you have transfer fees, so we want to make ourselves good enough so that players want to stay. You want to give these younger fellas a go but you must compete in the league as well too. It’s a bit of a drip-feed so that when they are good enough they get picked.

“We have a few others like Ben Donnell (20, back row), who has had a fair bit of exposure, Lovejoy Chawatama (28, prop) is a slower burner who has come into it, Phil Cokanasiga (19, centre) got to play last week so we have quite a number coming through like that but if you are going to do it on the back of results like the last one that is no good for anybody (the 27-52 loss at Newcastle).

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“What you have got to do is drip feed it [the rookie talent] into a positive environment. That is not always winning matches but it is certainly being at the competitive end of the game when it comes to the last five or ten minutes.”

The thing with rookies is they can flatter to deceive – they can look immensely promising when they first get a look-in but then don’t have the consistency to follow through and make themselves long-term regulars. It is why Kidney is pleased with the contribution of Waisake Naholo to the club.

The former All Blacks winger has very seldom featured since signing on big bucks – February 2020 was his last Premiership outing due to serious injury – but the 30-year-old’s influence on the rookies making their breakthrough has apparently been invaluable. “You can probably talk about the back three as a whole,” said Kidney about his satisfaction at homegrown talent making the grade, especially Hassell-Collins who tops the clean breaks chart for this season with 31, seven more than next-best Alex Dombrandt of Harlequins.

“The three of them [Hassell-Collins, Loader and Parton] have come through the academy system here in London Irish and there have been a few others that have gone to other clubs. When he [Hassell-Collins] is learning off fellas like Waisake and in fairness someone like Tom Homer as well then too, a guy who has good Premiership experience, between the work done in the academy and learning from a few senior players, he is developing all the time.

“Ollie would be the first to say there is a lot more in him to come from him but the fact that when you are at the top of a statistic your name is probably going to be out there which means that now people will be watching him a bit more. As you well know from the international scene, your first international in lots of ways is your hardest but it is also your easiest because the opposition has the least footage on you.

“As time goes on now space will become tighter for Olly but by him occupying the attentions of other defenders hopefully it will open up some space around him. You see it in football whereby a midfielder will go off and often take two defenders with him leaving space for somebody else so if Olly isn’t the highest on the statistical breaks as long as we are as a team that is all that will matter.

“That is just one of the areas where there is loads of growth in it for him. He has worked really hard to try and add to his game. It has been a typical coming through the academy and the Championship year was where it benefited us as a club, we knew we could blood a lot of the younger fellas.

“He had 50 caps the last day and a lot of those were achieved in the Championship two years ago. Also his body has developed to allow him to be fit to be selected regularly because that is another part to it when you are younger as well, sometimes you can play two or three games and then physically you are not up to the rigours of it and you can miss two or three. 

“But he has managed to make himself available for most of the games which is a credit to him and his preparation and I’d like to think that is part and parcel of the structure around him, both in other players and in the staff that have been good at keeping him going. Where is he in what he can achieve? I’d say around 70 per cent. 

“There is still another ten or twenty per cent growth in him on the basis that nobody ever gets to 100 per cent. You get to 100 per cent one match in your career but for him to get to that 80, 90 per cent there is still more growth in him and the great thing is he knows that himself.

“He’ll probably tell you less than I do, that is the best way I can put it. He is a quiet fella but he works hard on his game and the work between himself, Tom and Ben on the other wing, they work closely with one another and they are a sub-unity within the backs as well as individuals. It’s really pleasing they are playing off one another.  

“It is disappointing that Waisake wasn’t fit to take part out on the pitch but it is his professionalism as well in and around those quiet conversations that you have with players because the biggest influence on players is other players in terms of growing up and as a coach you just want to create that type of environment.

“He would have sat down with them and gone through it. Some days they will have come off really fed up and he will have gone through it with them to show the good things that he did. There will be days when they will get two tries and he will just point out to them you touched the ball down but that is your job as a winger.

“There was an example the last day: Ben would have got a try but as bad as the last day was it was Ollie’s covering tackle in the last play of the game that stopped the scoreboard from being even worse for us. It’s understanding the hidden stuff is just as important as the stuff that grabs the headlines.”

Asked if Naholo, who made a reserve team comeback last month, might make Premiership selection before the season is over, Kidney added: “We are looking at that. It’s a case where you don’t want to risk serious injury, long-term injury going forward so he has trained since then. He has been training more regularly and it’s just building up strength in it all the time. Whether that time will come within the time that we have left within this season, that is what we are taking a look at right now.”

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'We don't want be a feeding ground for other clubs': Irish out to ensure history doesn't repeat itself with latest crop of rising academy stars

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