Loyalty in rugby, as in most professional sports, is an old-fashioned, out-of-date concept. Life and lifestyles have moved on from that bygone, amateur era; like comparing Blind Date to Love Island.
It cuts both ways, of course. Players cannot be blamed for seeking a larger pay packet or a more glamorous team when their careers could be curtailed by injury in a second; clubs have to keep in mind that they are a business not a charity, so cannot afford (literally) to carry any passengers when livelihoods and their very existence may be at stake.
But it is refreshing to see Topsy Ojo and London Irish still maintaining a healthy marriage after all these years when so many teams and players end up in messy divorces.
Ojo made a record 301 appearances for the Exiles between 2005-2019, scoring 80 tries, and is rightfully regarded as a London Irish legend. But even once he had hung up his boots, both sides didn’t want it to be the end of his involvement, so he took on the role of an ambassador.
“I’m essentially representing the club in any way shape or form that they need me to,” said Ojo. “Having had such a long playing association, we felt there was room there to broaden the role into a non-playing capacity. So whether that’s fan engagement, meeting and greeting with sponsors, any assistance Irish need in an off-field capacity, I’m there to pitch in and help out.
“Officially, I joined in 2003 but I’d been doing some stuff with the Colts previously so we’re probably getting on for 20 years now. To have that continued association is great. It just allows me to continue doing some good work with the club, off the field and in a different capacity, but it’s all geared towards getting the professionals performing. There has always been a good synergy between myself and Irish and it has continued now that I have finished playing.”
While many of his compadres in green chose to move for a bigger pay day, a bigger club or a bigger opportunity of getting international recognition – think Riki Flutey, Delon and Steffon Armitage and Alex Corbisiero – Ojo decided to stay put. For 16 years, 14 of them in the first team. An incredible achievement. With the club experiencing some real highs and also more than a few depressing lows, Ojo was an ever-present throughout them all. It would be understandable if the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what might have beens’ plagued Ojo, but he insists that is not the case.
People will look at Irish’s history and see a lot of our good, young talent coming through and leaving but whenever it came to me deciding what to do, it was always the best decision – for me first, then later my family – to stay at the club.
“I get asked the question a lot but it’s the same answer every time: I don’t regret it,” said Ojo.
“People will look at Irish’s history and see a lot of our good, young talent coming through and leaving but whenever it came to me deciding what to do, it was always the best decision – for me first, then later my family – to stay at the club.
“It was where I felt wanted, felt challenged, felt I could still learn, so it was a very easy decision.
“Looking back now over my whole career, I don’t have any regrets at being a one-club man. We are a rare breed – there are still a few lingering about – and things have moved on now, but I was very happy to stay.”
No regrets is a recurring theme with Ojo. The former wing could and should have won more than his two caps for England but there is no bitter taste in his mouth, only a savouring of the moment. Despite scoring two tries in his two Tests against the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2008 – “100 per cent strike-rate, I’ll take that” – Ojo fell out of favour. But those two matches with the red rose on his chest are still the pinnacle.
“I’d say absolutely playing for England was the best highlight and to score on debut as well… Growing up as a kid, you say, ‘Oh, I’d love to play for England’, then it actually happens. A lot of people say that it’s only afterwards that you can look back and say, ‘I did that’. It’s in the history books and no one can ever take that away from you. It will be there for ever, so I’m very proud of being able to do that,” said Ojo.
“Would I have loved more caps? Yes, but sometimes things don’t work out that way and I’m grateful for the two that I got because that’s quite unique and there are many, many people who don’t get any caps.
“I was selected to tour the following summer, but I had a big knee injury so was out for that. I played six games the following season and re-injured it, so I effectively missed the whole season.
“With a lot of positions, but maybe wing in particular, there are guys champing at the bit to come through. I came back in a World Cup year and I was still playing well enough but there were people ahead of me in the queue. Sometimes it’s out of your hands, there’s only so much you can do.”
As much as Ojo enjoys casting a glance back to his past, he also has one eye on the future. Being an ambassador for Irish is not the only string to his bow. The 36-year-old will be combining his duties at the Exiles with some TV and radio punditry, having impressed armchair fans with his insightful commentary on BT Sport, Sky Sports, TalkSport and the BBC.
“I’m spinning a few different plates but the TV and media work has been brilliant and the plan is to go bigger and better this season,” said Ojo. “Once the Premiership gets up and running, hopefully people won’t be sick of seeing and hearing me. It will be full steam ahead and to go better than I have before. But I’m really enjoying it and it’s going well.”
One of the more exciting teams to watch on the box last season were London Irish who, following a few yo-yo campaigns between the top flight and Championship, finally looked like they belonged in the Gallagher Premiership, finishing ninth and 21 points clear of bottom-placed Worcester. And Ojo expects his old club to certainly go “bigger and better” this season despite their opening loss to the Warriors.
“I’m really excited to see how they go. They won a lot of fans’ hearts and minds – not just Irish supporters but other supporters as well – with their style of play and the way they went about things,” said Ojo.
The challenge for them will be to maintain that attacking verve they had through last season but then also add in bits of steel, bits of pragmatism and bits of ruthlessness as well.
“It probably wasn’t the best for the coaches as they were involved in a lot of high-scoring games but, in terms of the rugby they played and how they went about their business, there was some really good stuff. So I look ahead to this season and with another year’s experience, guys getting to know each other, the league as well, off the back of Covid, no more restrictions off the pitch and really able to forge some relationships, I believe they could go really well this season.
“The challenge for them will be to maintain that attacking verve they had through last season but then also add in bits of steel, bits of pragmatism and bits of ruthlessness as well.
“As much as for a fan watching these high-scoring games is great, as a player or a coach involved with the club, you want to score the 30-40 points but then keep the opposition at arm’s length. If they can close out more games, they could go very well this season.”
Ojo believes Irish are starting to get the same sort of balance in the squad he experienced when the Exiles were last legitimate title challengers at the top end of the game, both at home and in Europe. They lost agonisingly 36-34 to Gloucester in the European Challenge Cup final in 2006; 21-15 to Toulouse in the Heineken Cup semi-finals in 2008 (with Ojo scoring a try), and 10-9 to Leicester in the Premiership final in 2009. Homegrown young talent such as the Armitage brothers, David Paice, Nick Kennedy and Paul Hodgson mixed with a sprinkling of experienced overseas talent like Olivier Magne, Seilala Mapusua and Sailosi Tagicakibau to form a potent cocktail. They were the nearly-men of English rugby but better to nearly get to the summit than be stuck back at base camp.
Through experience, through learning, through digging in and going through tough times to get to those better times, you come across a positive environment and a winning environment as well.
“There are a few more Aussies than Islanders, but there’s a similar feeling to what’s being built,” said Ojo.
“You have your core of homegrown talent or guys that have come through the academy, you add some international talent to nurture them and bring them through and then you try to gel the whole thing.
“Through experience, through learning, through digging in and going through tough times to get to those better times, you come across a positive environment and a winning environment as well.
“The experience of the past year and a half, especially with the young guys, to see how far they’ve come on and whether they’re ready and able to make that next step up, that’s probably what I’m most looking forward to seeing, as a fan and someone still involved with the club.
“I’d say with the crop of guys I came through with, we were the same. We had three years in the academy, another year or two in the first team and it was around that time that we really got to grips with the league, started to gel and had some really successful seasons.
“Those two [Heineken Cup semi-final and England caps) would be my career highlights, although we lost the semi. But the thing for me was just being able to prove a lot of people wrong through those years, go under the radar, have a really great time doing what we did and to really push and get close to the summit. Obviously we didn’t quite get there, both in Europe and the league, losing the final by a point, but we were there or thereabouts.”
The new breed of youngsters coming through at Irish, such as 22-year-old wing Ollie Hassell-Collins, will have plenty to learn from the likes of ex-Australia scrum-half Nick Phipps and Ireland and British & Irish Lions back-row legend Sean O’Brien but, when push came to shove, Ojo highlighted four players who could light up the Premiership this season.
“You go through a potential first XV for Irish and there are some world stars in there,” said Ojo. “Rob Simmons, Adam Coleman coming in, Gus Creevy, there’ll be some names that people will know very well.
“The ones that may go under the radar, who are just starting to poke their heads above a bit, are two in the front row – Lovejoy Chawatama and Will Goodrick-Clarke. Their rugby journey up the leagues into Premiership starters is a huge credit to them.
“Matt Rogerson in the back row is a similar story. He has become a linchpin in that he’s in there, does the nitty-gritty and keeps thing ticking over.
“Paddy Jackson as well. He’s an Irish international but having a quality fly-half, who kicks goals, you speak to any team, is worth its weight in gold. They’re probably the four to watch out for this season.”
You hear it all the time, ‘We want to be a top-four team’. If you’re at that level already then you can say those sorts of things. If you’re aspiring to be there, you have to be a bit more incremental in how you do things.
Ah, Paddy Jackson… It caused huge controversy when the Exiles signed the former Ireland No10 in 2019 following a well-publicised rape and sexual assault case, in which he was found not guilty. Yet there was another social-media firestorm to try to put out when Irish announced that the 29-year-old would be part of a four-man leadership team for this season.
There are times when being an ambassador for London Irish appears a very attractive proposition: imbibing more than a few pints of Guinness with sponsors at the St Patrick’s Day match, for example, or welcoming back fans at the Brentford Community Stadium, as they will for the league game against Sale Sharks on Sunday. Dealing with the vitriol directed toward both the player and the club probably isn’t what Ojo signed up for, but he tread warily around the subject.
“I did see a lot of the fallout but I’m not going to comment on it. It’s not really my place to do so. [Director of Rugby] Declan Kidney is the man who makes those decisions, he’s the one you need to address on that front,” said Ojo.
“The central part of my role is the fans and the sponsors, how I engage with them about their experiences at the club and, from my perspective, that relationship is always good. With how the team have played, there’s huge excitement about getting back to Brentford, to watch the team play in huge numbers and to get back to where we were [before Covid], so everybody’s really looking forward to that.
“The work the club have done off the field in terms of sponsors, you’ll see a number of existing sponsors renewing and a number of new ones coming in, so the club are moving forward and we have plenty of people on board with us.”
With everyone “on board”, it’s full steam ahead for Irish but Ojo knows they are not close to their destination just yet. No grandiose, outlandish targets or predictions, he just wants to see the club consolidate their position before striking for the top.
“They’re going to take it in stages. Everybody would say, and you hear it all the time, ‘We want to be a top-six team’, ‘We want to be a top-four team’. If you’re at that level already then you can say those sorts of things. If you’re aspiring to be there, you have to be a bit more incremental in how you do things,” said Ojo.
“For Irish, it’s about consistent improvement. As the bottom line, they’d love to be in the Champions Cup next season, that would be a huge step-up. Then anything from there is a bonus.”
More stories from Andrew Elliott
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