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Why the London Irish Exiles Are Winning the Race to the Bottom

By Martyn Thomas
Luke Narraway, the London Irish captain leads his team off the pitch after their defeat. Photo / Getty

The London Irish are almost assured of relegation after suffering another bad loss in a season full of them. Martyn Thomas looks at where it all went wrong.

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His side had just won a vital game, but Dean Richards didn’t sound happy.

“We were the best of two bad sides,” the Newcastle Falcons’ director of rugby said grimly. It was hard to disagree.

The Falcons’ 13-6 victory over the London Irish Exiles on Sunday stretched the gap between the league’s 11th and 12th-placed sides to seven points with two games to play. It all-but ensured the Exiles are relegated, ending their 20-year stay in the English top-flight league.

But it was a match almost devoid of composure. The Falcons didn’t so much win as fail to lose. It was fitting that the only try arrived via an interception, Marcus Watson picking off a horrendous Greig Tonks pass to streak in under the posts.

The Exiles might have felt aggrieved that they boarded the flight back to the capital without anything to show for their second-half dominance, but their lack of cutting edge that has cost them dear this season.

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The side have gone whole matches without threatening the try-line, and haven’t made up for it by kicking penalties.

They managed just six late points in a match-up with the Worcester Warriors at Sixways on March 26, spurning several penalties to kick for the corner. A commendable approach to attacking rugby perhaps, but one that meant they didn’t trouble the scoreboard until the 69th minute.

Unsurprisingly, Tonks’ six points from the tee proved too little too late. But despite the galling nature of that damaging defeat, lessons were not learnt ahead of the trip to Newcastle.

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At Kingston Park with the pressure on, and survival at stake, the Exiles’ composure and confidence completely deserted them.

Every time they threatened the Falcons line, they contrived to butcher the opportunity, be it with a forced offload, errant pass or a simple knock-on. Yes, Newcastle played admirably to withstand the second half onslaught, but it is also true that Irish performed like a team who knew they were doomed.

Perhaps that isn’t surprising given they have looked ripe for relegation for a while now, but it’s frustrating for the fans who have watched them slide towards the trap door while making the same mistakes week after week.


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At least the Exiles players apologised on the plane home, but that would have been little comfort to their long-suffering supporters. It is now five years since the Exiles made the top six, and they have gradually descended ever since, finishing seventh, ninth, 10th and 10th in the intervening years.

This season was supposed to be different.

A recruitment drive saw Sean Maitland, Ciaran Hearn and Ben Franks arrive after the World Cup. But they have been unable to arrest the slide. Franks made only five Premiership appearances before injury struck, while Maitland and Hearn have impressed only in patches.

Coventry’s final roll of the dice came in February when Tonks arrived from Edinburgh, and while 44 points have followed in six league appearances, the South Africa-born fly-half has been found wanting at crucial moments.

It remains to be seen how many of the club’s international contingent stick around once what seems an inevitable relegation is confirmed. Tonks and Maitland still harbour Test ambitions, as does their Scotland teammate Blair Cowan.

Shane Geraghty and Alex Lewington may also have Premiership suitors next season, but who else will be in demand?

The Championship is not a division to be taken lightly, as fallen giants Bristol can attest, but the Exiles will fancy their chances of making an immediate return to the big time.

Those players who do stick around will be supplemented by some excellent prospects from the academy, of whom fly-half Theo Brophy-Clews is the latest graduate.

Staging second-tier games at the 24,161-capacity Madejski Stadium, where the club has a lease until 2026, will no doubt prove costly but while their attendances may thin a campaign in the Championship does give the Exiles a chance to clear the decks and build again.

A single season flirtation with the second tier did little harm to the likes of Harlequins and Northampton. If it happens, London Irish must make sure their exile from the Premiership lasts no longer.

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