9 February 2023
19-0 down at the break, London Irish was in the uncharted territory of suffering a whitewash.
The Exiles were up against it as tries from Sam Graham and James Ramm (2) put Northampton Saints in the driving seat in Round 2 of the Premiership Rugby Cup.
The spark for the near unthinkable comeback in the second period was provided by Hallam Chapman, notching a brace before a clever Logan Trotter finish, converted by Rory Jennings, brought Irish to the brink of greatness.
A turnaround synonymous with the Club’s exploits in recent seasons was complete with a penalty try awarded by referee Dan Jones, after the Exiles’ rolling maul was brought down illegally.
“There’s always nerves in being in those sorts of moments, but I think within the squad, we have such belief,” captain Jack Cooke said of the final exchanges against Saints.
“That’s from the senior squad and all the way down to the Academy – we know what we can do as a team.
“Even if we are 19 points down, there is such a level of trust within the squad that we can pull it back from any score.
“It is a massive positive, but the main thing is to not be 19 points down and be in that position of course!”
Nights like in last September are what Cooke and his teammates strive for at the Gtech Community Stadium, making memories for the Club he grew up watching.
The 24-year-old forward, whose career beginnings started at Bracknell RFC, has maintained ties with Irish from his youth to his playing days as he came up through the Academy College and Education (ACE) set-up from the age of 16.
Now in his fourth year in senior rugby, Cooke evokes pride in wearing the green jersey and marshalling the team in the Premiership Rugby Cup once more this Friday in the semi-final against Northampton.
“It’s always an honour and a privilege for me to lead out this team.
“It is a famous Club, and for me, it always means that little more as I grew up a supporter.
“I have been a mascot, a season ticket holder, all of the above!
“That always adds a little bit more passion for me and drives me because I have been part of the Club for so long.”
With desire never found wanting with characters like Cooke in the squad, he believes that the role of the coaches is to also translate what it means to represent London Irish.
As each matchday squad throughout the pool stages contained 10 or more past or present Academy members, having management who have mentored the young talent through the ranks alongside them has its benefits.
“They definitely instil that fire within us, it’s nice in the cup when coaches like Dec [Declan Danaher], Fish [Jonathan Fisher] and Lights [James Lightfoot Brown] take that step up and run the week.
“It makes that special bond stronger, there are a lot of young lads that have worked through the Academy partnering them guys.
“Dec has been my coach since I was 17 and has moved every step along the way with me, we have a really good relationship.
“Having them by us helps translate that belief they have in us to our performances.”
With such a storied association with London Irish, handling emotions approaching a week where he leads the Club onto the field will still create emotional tension for the loose forward.
Achieving wins over London rivals Harlequins and Saracens in the cup, just as the senior side did in the league, still stirs the senses for Cooke and his band of brothers.
Bestowed with the captain’s armband, he is challenged to govern the on-pitch sentiment and reaction as he looks to steer the team to another final.
“It can be quite an emotionally charged week leading up to games like this for me and my family, but I leave most of that behind and concentrate on the job I have to do.
“It’s always massive beating any of the London teams, especially for the young lads because it builds good morale and a confidence, but not necessarily an arrogance.
“That shows that we are on a level with these teams, and we have proven that in the league and the cup – they are huge nights for us as a Club.
“I bring emotions when I need to, but I like to think I am quite level-headed and leave unnecessary feelings behind.
“I’ll always have that motivation in the back of my mind, though.”
As results through the Premiership Rugby Cup grew from strength to strength, Cooke has seen a mirrored evolution through the playing squad in dealing with setbacks and expectation.
Such a mindset from the young team is something he and the management admire, and Cooke views it as been pivotal to Irish being the first team to achieve maximum points in the Premiership Cup pool stages.
“From the start of the campaign, you can see so many little changes,” he continued.
“We have definitely got calmer as a group, those first few games can be quite frantic and it’s something we have definitely worked on in training.
“It’s about being as composed as you can be; there are times when you need to be physical and aggressive, but having the correct attitude when bringing that physicality and maintaining a cool head is paramount.
“You can see the changes and progression through the games, I feel.”
Formalities with Saints resume this Friday evening as the Clubs meet again in the cup tournament, each standing in each other’s way to greatness in domestic knockout competition.
Both Clubs contested the 2002 Powergen Cup final as Irish lifted their first piece of silverware, with the Clubs meeting four times since that fateful day at Twickenham Stadium.
Saints exacted revenge in a 2003 semi-final defeat of the west Londoners, but yesteryear will play little part in the thinking of Cooke and the team this weekend, as the focus examines on what threats their opponents pose now.
“We are aware of the strong attacking front that they possess, but like any team in the Prem, they have a strong breakdown and defence.
“We’re expecting them to come out and play, and it’s on us to stop that as soon as we can within the game.
“In the first few phases we have to remain strong, but we will have to play the game we know we’re capable of and not worry about them too much.
“We’ll always have to make decisions midway through games in how we attack things, that might be trying to go through them with a maul or if that doesn’t work, start working through our plans with the backs to try and create space.
“We always research well against the team we’re playing and do our homework; Northampton are a good, attacking side and we have prepared how we think it will be best to approach this Friday.”
As a supporter and a player, the weight of history doesn’t bare down on Cooke and the team as they look to write their own names in Club folklore this season.
“We definitely can use games like last season as a bit of a motivator, it was a frustrating ending to the season both in the league and cup competitions.
“We can generate last season as a positive energy going into nights like Friday, however that will be minimal, because our actions tomorrow are what really counts in the end.
“On the day we’re in a new season and we have to grab the opportunity when it arrives for us.
“I want the Club to where it should be, winning silverware and taking it as far as we can as a team.”