16 April 2022
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.
One of the fan favourites of the professional era, Barry Everitt solidified his status as one of the greatest the Premiership has seen in the fly-half position when he registered the highest ever scoring points season in the division in 2001/02.
‘The Boot’ played for the Exiles between 2000 and 2007, rounding off his Irish career as the Club’s record points scorer with 1,776 points before a later move to Franklin’s Gardens to see out his prolific career.
He played a vital role on the Powergen Cup final day and across the road at The Stoop, where over a month previously, the Class of ‘02 immortalised themselves in Irish lore with a semi-final win over rivals Harlequins.
Aided heavily by Everitt’s 22 points despite trying conditions, the Irishman commemorated his 26th birthday in front of family, friends, and the Exile Nation by slotting the decisive place kicks to deny a Quins comeback and take Irish to their first cup final in 22 years.
“I was apprehensive the conditions could get worse but thankfully, they didn’t, and we stuck to a structured game plan that had paid dividends throughout the season, we were a difficult team to beat with our noses in front.
“We were very composed and showed tremendous grit similar to previous matches, digging deep late on and with two penalties towards the end, we were able to close out the game.
“I remember people coming onto the field afterwards, they were so delighted and relieved, as were the players.
“We knew we would now be heading to a larger stadium, a bigger stage and there was an opportunity to bring the first piece of silverware back to the Club.”
Everitt went on to contribute 13 points on that famous afternoon at HQ, converting all five tries and a first-half penalty in addition, and states that the squad blocked out Irish’s history before going into the match.
“Coming off the back of a quite exceptional pre-season, we were incredibly fit, and the majority of the season had been really successful,” Everitt explained.
“We had a great run of form in the Premiership and other competitions, at that stage we were on a high, confident, the Club’s previous history wasn’t at the forefront of our minds.
“Throughout the competition, we concentrated on winning each individual game to give ourselves the opportunity of playing in the final.
“We had come so far, we really wanted to finish the competition on a high - go out there and win it!”
Everitt reiterated that just as history counted for little in the mind’s eye of the Boys in Green, as did the chatter doing the rounds in the column inches pre-match.
“There was that sense of underdog from outside of the changing room if I’m being honest, people were saying we should be happy to make the final and irrespective of the result, we had done well- that was at the forefront of their minds, not ours.
“We knew Northampton were a formidable team with an incredible squad of players, but we knew we could beat any team on our day.”
Pulling the strings at 10, Irish’s maestro elucidated the tactical battle strategy Conor O’Shea’s team executed on the day.
“We did focus slightly differently in the week leading up to the match as we knew that just kicking goals was probably not going to be enough, the final was too evenly balanced.
“There was a change of strategy, Brendan [Venter] explained we needed to have something different in our armory, slightly different moves giving them something they hadn’t seen before- we would need to score tries if we were to be successful and that’s exactly how the game played out.
“We knew Northampton had some very exciting players like Paul Grayson, a great orchestrator of the game, but he would have to play around our defence to the wings as the inside channel was secure.
“At the time, Geoff Appleford and Justin Bishop were two of the best in the game in closing off that outside space, so they would have to kick into that area and risk losing possession, which they were reluctant to do.
“They had so little of the ball and were afraid that if we had the ball we would run through multiple phases or kick into position and make it difficult for them to attack from deeper in the field.
“Looking at Northampton’s tactics on the day, from the off they put a lot of pressure on Chris Sheasby at number eight, and across the midfield which actually allowed us to play that ball a little wider to the likes of Geoff, Justin, Paul Sackey and Michael Horak.
“Those guys were in a lot more space than they were used to, and it ended up playing into our hands.”
Irish raced into a 24-0 lead at the break with tries from Appleford, Bishop and Horak, thereafter facing wave after wave of pressure from Northampton that was held off by an “exceptionally resilient” defence.
Everitt elaborated: “The turning point was seeing Budge Pountney and Matt Dawson arguing and scuffling as we jogged off the field at half-time, we knew they were rattled.
“Our team talk was as composed as ever, we were psychologically back to 0-0, wanting and needing to get the first score of the half to keep the pressure firmly on their shoulders.
“With 15 minutes to go I was very confident considering our defensive record, in particular with the talent in our back-row and midfield.
“We played the now more frequently used press defence, at that time very few Clubs had experienced the system and we were 18 months ahead of other teams in that respect.
“In many ways, it encourages teams to try to attack in the wider channels and give them space in behind to kick the ball but when teams are behind, the last thing they want is to give away possession by kicking so they keep the ball in hand.
“Maybe Northampton would have scored a try, perhaps two, but I knew that they wouldn’t bridge the sizable gap before the end of the game.”
Ben Cohen’s try on the hour counted for little when in the remaining ten minutes Appleford and Bishop completed their braces, with Everitt recounting the moment the South African-born centre scored.
“The longer the game went on, the more it went in our favour because we were specialists at locking games out and pressurising the opposition.
“In honesty, no one had expected that margin of a lead towards the end of the second half, it was something we could only have dreamt of.
“We didn’t need to push passes and risk interceptions as the pressure was on them; our set-piece was solid, retaining possession was something we could do, we held the ball for long passages of play and kicked deep when needed, and finally the error eventually came from them, and Geoff was able to sprint to the line.
“When Geoff crossed the whitewash, you just knew it was over- you could enjoy the final moments, soak in the atmosphere and see the joy on people’s faces.
“Coming off the field, I was so drained emotionally and felt numb for hours afterwards, we were exhausted, delighted and relieved and thankfully, our determination ensured we climbed the steps to lift the trophy.”
The ever-supportive Exile Nation descended on Twickenham and the proud Irishman corroborated the sentiment that the crowd made the difference on a day the likes of which has never been seen since.
“From the minute we got on the team bus to arriving at the stadium, there was a sea of green and seeing that immense crowd walking into the stadium, we knew that it was going to be a special day.
“Trying to keep your emotions in check in that moment as the crowd greets you is difficult, the only thing that surpasses that feeling is seeing them outside after we had won.
“A lot of people travelled from all over the UK and Ireland to be able to watch the game and be part of such a special day in the Club’s history.
“Brendan did say one thing in our team huddle before we left Sunbury, ‘When we win today, you will all remember this special group of players for the rest of your life.’
“He was right, there is a unique bond with that group of players.”
That special group of players’ day in the sun shone brightly, but were nonetheless found wanting in the further pursuit of silverware in the years that followed.
Everitt offers a clarification as to how the promising side weren’t able to replicate the fortunes of 20th April 2002.
“Us winning when we did was a perfect point of the season, riding the crest of a wave and with few injuries, but the rest of the season was quite different.
“After that final, every team knew what they would be facing for the remainder of the season – we certainly wouldn’t be underestimated.
“The analysis would be done on every aspect of our game, defence, attack, strengths and weaknesses and over the coming months, we probably needed to change our style of attritional play.
“As much as we were a unique group of players, one or two left or retired at the end of the following season - you can’t keep the same group together indefinitely, and it was almost as if we needed a rebuilding phase.
“It was about innovating within the game, making key signings, and maintaining an ethos, it is the same now as it was back then.
Believing that Irish “have the potential” of winning the trophies, Everitt states that the halcyon days of 2002 might not be far away for Declan Kidney’s men.
“Having a west London stadium was talked about when I first joined London Irish,” Everitt revealed.
“London Irish now play an entertaining attacking brand of rugby, if this can be combined with a resolute defence structure there will be big dividends in terms of results.
“Historically, the Club have been exceptional at bringing young players through the Academy structure, and there is lots of experience and talent at the Club that can be molded over time.
“It has taken a long time to put in place, but I think the Brentford Community Stadium lends itself wonderfully to attracting big crowds, and with the superb training facilities at Hazelwood, the players and staff have first class resources to allow the Club to be up there fighting for domestic and European trophies.”