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'We thought Quins were arrogant, thought they were above themselves'

By Liam Heagney
Paul Sackey on his England days (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It was just four weeks ago when rugby fans feasted on the latest dramatic installment in the London Irish versus Harlequins rivalry. Quins came from behind in added time to secure a dramatic 26-24 Gallagher Premiership win in a match at The Stoop that should have ended with a penalty on halfway for the Exiles after Bernard Janse van Rensburg was taken out in the air, foul play ignored by the referee which paved the way for the result-stealing try.

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The raucous October 28 atmosphere that was generated was a reminder that the clubs don’t really like each other all that much. Their rivalry had its genesis in clashes around the turn of the millennium when the Irish used to rent The Stoop off Harlequins, an edginess that culminated in a memorable March 2002 Powergen Cup semi-final between the clubs.

Irish weren’t supposed to win 32-27 and go on six weeks later to win the final 38-7 versus Northampton in front of 75,000 at Twickenham, but they impressively got the business done against Harlequins and the memories haven’t faded if the vibrant recollections on the latest episode of Rugby Stories is a gauge.

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The BT Sport Pods series has been recalling famous moments in the histories of the Gallagher Premiership clubs and their episode on London Irish has revisited the 2001/22 season when their cup-winning run included knocking out local rivals Harlequins on a terrible weather day.

Presented by Craig Doyle, the Irish episode colourfully heard from Paul Sackey, Chris Sheasby and Barry Everitt – and it was would-be England winger Sackey who best described his club’s issue with Harlequins.

“We hated them in all fairness, we really did,” he said. “We didn’t like them, the fans didn’t like each other. As players, we thought Quins were a little bit arrogant and we thought they were a bit above themselves, so that is where the rivalry between the clubs started.”

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Sheasby added: “You always talk about Harlequins and Wasps but this was a local derby. London Irish and Quins had shared the ground, you had all the different elements, the fact that Dick Best had been at Harlequins, Dick Best had been at London Irish, the games that had happened before – this was now semi-final time.”

Out-half Everitt has never forgotten waking up and opening the curtains on that March Saturday morning 20 years ago. “One of the things you least want to see when you look out the window when you first wake up is you hate to see windy weather because as a goalkicker and as a fly-half you know that you are going to have to alter your game and how you play.

“Even when it comes down to passing distances and whatnot, so looking out that morning I was going right we are going to have to change tactics a little bit… I went out to do some practice kicks and I missed every single one.

“It was incredibly difficult, I don’t think I experienced wind or a breeze like that on a field and I always remember my father on the day, it happened to be my birthday as well, he turned around to me and said, ‘I’d love to get to Twickenham, I’d love to get the final and I’d love to come and support’. I said, ‘No pressure then, thank you very much on my birthday in these conditions, let’s see can we get you to the final’.”

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Sackey, who won 22 England caps between 2006 and 2009, was just 22 at the time of the cup win and he recalled how he loved the atmosphere at London Irish, even though he had a habit of overindulging in the squad’s off-field craic in the slightly less professional early days. “I was new to rugby in itself,” he explained.

“I had started playing rugby late, so (at) 15 I started to get little bits of Irish’s history and stuff like that but when I was there, because I was so young I just enjoyed myself and because I really didn’t know too much about rugby, I enjoyed myself even more, if you know what I mean, because I wanted to enjoy it and I wanted to embrace rugby.

“So I just took to rugby and the fans and Irish because Irish was a place where they embraced you – you had fun,” he said, craic he is still in touch with today as Topsy Ojo, in a RugbyPass interview, referenced a visit by Sackey to a recent London Irish match.

“I actually loved it, I loved being part of it. I really enjoyed playing so we liked to party, we liked to have fun, we went out a lot but did it together as a team. We were a very close-knit team but I think we enjoyed ourselves a little too much, I was a bit of a nightmare, to be fair I was a big nightmare. I sort of did my own thing a lot of the time, I was quite laidback.”

Laidback is a Sackey Irish description backed up by Sheasby. “His seat in his Mercedes used to be reclined so far back with that casual attitude, but I was always worried about his driving because he could barely see over the steering wheel.”

The former seven-cap England back-rower added about Irish: “This wonderful club that everyone loved, probably everyone’s second favourite club, a club that was always fighting to stay up. It was always a close-run thing, always sort of near the relegation zone.

“On any one weekend, it could pull out the most amazing victories by playing the most amazing rugby but just not consistent enough and therefore always in that battle at the bottom. So not competing consistently at the top but a great place to be, a great place to be a part of and to play. It was all about the craic and the Guinness and the fun and that wonderful Irish atmosphere.”

  • For the in-depth London Irish story, check out BT Sport’s podcast series, Rugby Stories, part of the BT Sport Pods lineup of podcasts. Every Monday, Rugby Stories, presented by Craig Doyle, will spotlight and celebrate English club rugby history. Btsport.com/pods

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