Over the next week, we will take the Exile Nation back 20 years to the Club’s 2002 Powergen Cup triumph over Northampton Saints, which ended 38-7 at Twickenham Stadium.
We will be chatting to some of the key figures involved to commemorate the against-all-odds victory for Irish.
As one of Irish’s current coaching crop, Assistant Coach Declan Danaher is once again playing a hand in another deep cup run for London Irish- but this time, it’s from the touchlines.
Danaher is Irish’s longest-serving player of the professional era and alongside the 2002 cup win, he reached the 2005/06 Challenge Cup final, the Heineken Cup semi-finals of the 2007/08 season and 2008/09 Premiership final with the Exiles.
As a product of the Developing Player Programme, Danaher joined the senior set-up in 1999 and had tasted the latter stages of cup competition with the team in his first two campaigns with Irish.
The run to the 2002 Powergen Cup final was one of legend for the club, not only due to the eventual final destination, but the wins on the road that etched the ‘Class of 2002’ to Club folklore.
Reminiscing on the conquests over Bath Rugby, Gloucester, and particularly London rivals Harlequins at The Stoop, Danaher spoke on the work ethic that carried him and his side through.
“We were on it from minute one to minute 80, and they couldn’t handle the intensity we were playing at,” Danaher proudly declared.
“It was an enjoyable game for me against Quins, probably my best game of that campaign and I probably peaked a little early!
“We had a real sense of confidence on that day- individually we were fine, but just as a unit we just had a collective belief we were going to win it together and not on our own.
“We didn’t have any superstar, standout players but what we did have was a lot of respect for each other and knew we had to work incredibly hard.
“Any team who beat us was going to have to put in a performance, and to out-work us.”
The former back-row forward, who was only 22-years-old on the day, denied that there was any sense of fate after coming close in the latter stages yesteryear and finally reaching a cup final exactly 22 years before, particularly when facing the might of Northampton Saints.
“There definitely wasn't a feeling of destiny, I just think we had some real momentum that year in the way we were playing and performing as a group.
“There was a lot of confidence, without being arrogant, that we had a good chance of being there or thereabouts and I suppose we started to believe more after our win at Quins in the semi-final.
“There was a real sense of ‘we can do this’.
Saints had reached the Tetley’s Bitter Cup final two seasons previous, and although having not experienced cup success until 2008, they edged out Munster in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham in 2000.
Danaher continued: “We probably were the underdogs, and that just made it easier for us to be focused.
“They had a lot of good players, but we had Chris Sheasby who had played a final before, Justin Bishop who had 25 caps for Ireland, Brendan Venter was a World Cup winner, Naka Drotské had been to a World Cup and Steve Williams who played for Wales.
“We were underestimated by people outside the room and Saints went in with a swagger and confidence.
The attacking vigour of Northampton sparked the discussion of Irish’s obligation to protect whatever lead they could muster.
With the benefit of hindsight and considering the final score, did the likes of Danaher, player/coach Brendan Venter and Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea share that defensive mindset pre-match?
“With any team that Brendan Venter went on to coach, you can see that there is a real defensive template which was instilled in us.
“If anything, we took great pride in the defensive effort that was required- that comes back to our hard work and a sign of a good team that we were willing to work for each other.
“I don’t remember us talking up what Northampton could do in attack, and I think they underestimated our attacking capabilities because of that.
“They certainly couldn’t handle us in attack when we got on a roll and created momentum.
“Matt Dawson was a very, very good player and was maybe the one person we did talk about in terms of their attacking intent.
“We thought that if we could stop him playing, then the rest could take care of itself, which we did.”
Another formidable opponent faced on the day was the great Tom Smith, who passed recently but had a great impact on the onlooking Danaher during the two previous British and Irish Lions tours.
“Because I started playing rugby quite late, it was probably the first time that I started to get a sense of the history of the game and what it meant to people to get on tours like that.
“There was a guy there who quietly went about his work and whether for Scotland or Northampton, it was always about the team and what he could do for them.
“As you get older, you realise how lucky you were to play against some of those guys and you almost take it for granted.”
Gracing the Twickenham pitch for the first time since the turn of the century, Irish wasted little time in stamping a ceaseless authority, and before they knew it, the Boys in Green were 24-0 up at the interval.
Tries from Geoff Appleford, Michael Horak and Justin Bishop handed Irish the near unthinkable lead.
If Danaher and the team didn’t feel it then, then when did they know that the cup was theirs?
“As soon as they scored, it made us believe even more and there was a real sense of momentum then,” Danaher explained.
“We definitely didn’t think it was ours, we were worried Northampton were going to come back.
“We went out with a real intent to shut them down like we had in the first-half, knowing they would be a bit more desperate and throw it around a bit more.
“But we definitely didn’t have any complacency, it wasn’t until the final whistle went that we even believed we had won it.”
Alas, Northampton’s incohesive approach only lasted for so long as Ben Cohen eventually breached the green rearguard, but the score came on the hour with Irish staving off the Saints’ march to the try line.
The defensive efforts were something of a source of pride for the Exiles, but the relief when Geoff Appleford raced the length of the pitch to score the decisive try sent large sections of the national stadium into raptures.
“I do remember on the day that they became more and more desperate and were a very frustrated team, not a lot clicked for them- there was a sense of stress within their ranks.
“Especially before half-time, and with them not scoring for the first 20 minutes of the second-half there was a sense of anxiety in their group.
“We definitely weren’t stressed because when you’re up that much then you are in a good place.”
“With 10 minutes to go, you can start to enjoy it a bit more, but I didn’t really enjoy the game itself and didn’t particularly play well, in all honesty.
“But that sense of not thinking you have won it until the final whistle, but equally there was the inevitability of knowing we were far enough ahead to enjoy the remaining minutes.”
That special squad produced memories that have lasted lifetimes and spanned generations amongst the Exile Nation, an unforgettable occasion for those who were there and almost the same for those who weren’t, who are still reminded of it by family and friends.
So, how did the team do it, and what went right for Irish on the day?
“Looking back now we had a group of players, including those who didn’t play, who believed in what we were doing.
“That was based on work ethic and a massive amount of respect for each other and what we were trying to achieve.
“Maybe the stars aligned, and it all went right- we had a lot of guys who had played Premiership rugby and also international rugby but a lot of that Saints team had played for England, who might have had a sense they had a hand on that trophy.
“We weren’t scared of them, and maybe felt a bit of a chip on our shoulder that they might not have respected us.
“We went out to prove them and everyone else wrong.
“Being realistic, they were heavy favourites so there was no pressure on us, and if they had won it, normal service would have resumed.”
With the Exile Nation populating vast swathes of the national stadium on the day, the near indescribable emotions running through the squad was palpable having just made history in front of the Irish crowd.
“Afterwards, well, I can’t quite describe it, it was the most unbelievable feeling.
“There were definitely more Irish fans than Northampton fans and between the drink, the craic, the result, and the sun being out, it was the stuff of legend.
“When we played Saints at home a few weeks ago, people were saying to me that they still remember that day and go back and watch it on YouTube, only a young lad who would have been five or six at the time.
“I remember being quite blown away by the whole thing, and as I say it is not until quite some time after you realise how lucky you are to play at Twickenham in front of 75,000 people, it’s pretty special.”
Did Danaher and co. believe that more trophies beckoned after finally picking up the Club’s maiden piece of silverware?
“I think we had the opportunity to do something,” he divulged.
“We put ourselves in the shop window, we nearly got relegated the next year but that was the makings of the team that came through a few years later and went to the Premiership final.
“Off the back of that, there were a few guys like myself who had an opportunity to win something and then had a very tough year with some ups and downs.
“That is what shapes you though, and it helped us go on to get a few top four finishes, a European semi-final and obviously the Premiership final, but ultimately we fell short.”
Now, with London Irish being back in the capital and competing on three fronts in the latter portion of the 2021/22 season, there is a belief that a strong connection is being regenerated between the team and support.
“I’d say it is rebuilding, but that it is not rebuilt yet.
“There is a responsibility on the team to put in performances that people want to come and see, which will then create belief and you get a nice mixing of people coming to enjoy themselves but also a belief this team can do something.
“I loved my years out in Reading, I had some of my best years out there but there was always a sense for me wanting to play in London, going to the stadium now gives me a buzz.
“The number of people who have come to watch us recently has been brilliant, so it is a stadium that is there to be filled and a stadium that we will hopefully build as a playing group to create that connection between us and the support.
“They have that in their own hands, and I think there have been some really good performances from both individuals and as a group in our four cup games this year.
“I would like to think that off the back of our reviews of the Tigers games that we will be in a good place going into the semi-final, and the rest will be up to the playing group to put in a performance worthy of us getting to the final.”
Keep an eye on London Irish’s social channels over the next week where more legends of ‘02 will tell-all on the Exiles’ greatest day.