20 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.
The Club’s fabric is woven with figures like Conor O’Shea, London Irish’s Director of Rugby during their 2002 Powergen Cup win.
Beginning his playing career with Lansdowne and Leinster, he joined Irish for the second portion of the 1990s and reached 412 points in 127 appearances.
O’Shea retired in the year 2000 and took up a coaching role with the Club the following year, eventually advancing to the Director of Rugby position whilst installing Brendan Venter as a player-coach.
He has since gone on to lead Harlequins to a Challenge Cup, Premiership title and LV Cup and currently is the Rugby Football Union’s Director of Performance Rugby.
Walking up the Twickenham steps for the first time was far from tranquil, but the nature of the knockout competition complemented the roster of Exiles back in ‘02 as they overcame Bath, Gloucester and Harlequins.
“Cup rugby suited our team as opposed to the league, in the sense that in the Premiership it was a marathon with a lack of squad depth and an inability to rotate would always impact you,” O’Shea expounded.
“The one-off nature of a cup competition meant you could just leave it all out there, treating each game like a stage win in a Tour de France and you could beat the odds against a team with bigger budgets and bigger names.
“We had a good team of players who were already capped or would go on to be internationals, but would our team get out on the pitch week in, week out in the league?
“Probably not, because of the sheer attritional nature but in a cup match, that’s a good team.
“We had this rotational policy with the pack, and about three or four games out they had realised who was starting and who wasn’t in the final- but with two really good front rows, they knew they were fresh and would play out 50/30- or 55/25-minute splits.
“It worked and was used in future teams when they needed to manage their squads- they might have been older, but they were good.
“It means a little more as we had gone through some tough times together and the Powergen Cup was like the FA Cup 20 years ago.”
O’Shea was only a season removed from being on the pitch with so many of the featured players in the 2002 cup run, having retired from a knee injury at just 31-years-old.
The then Director of Rugby was eager to pay tribute to the all-star cast of “great friends” and players who alongside the Irishman, made that final possible.
“To win a national competition at that level is hard and we got ourselves into a good place, changing a lot of the perceptions of what we could become.
“Good coaches are made by their players, knowing you have them fit, fighting and on the pitch, anything is possible.
“Myself and Brendan [Venter] have worked together since over in Italy- he is just an amazing, enthusiastic motivator and it’s hard to put into words the type of bloke that he is.
“He was my first port of call, and if you know Brendan, you go out on the pitch believing you could win every game that you play.
“A good friend of mine who passed away who played for the Club, Jarrod Cunningham, was one of the first to have the chant ‘Can he kick it? Yes he can!’ sung at him- Barry Everitt did the same with his own unique style, and he loved being beside Brendan because he protected him and did all the hard work, I jest.
“Chris Sheasby, the ‘quintessential Quin’, became the heartbeat of that side over a few years and had a lease of life from Irish, he became a new player again.
“Michael Horak and Geoff Appleford more or less got capped for England off the back of their performances that year, Paul Sackey made it through to the England squad in years to come but the undercard to all of that was a bloody hard pack.”
A side operating under no fear were also under no illusions about the caliber of team they faced in the national stadium, composed of active internationals and previous European champions.
“No one thought we had a chance, but we felt with the group of people we had that there was every chance to go and do something special.
“They had household names, British and Irish Lions, we weren’t supposed to touch them, but we didn’t just touch them, we absolutely blew them out of the water.
“Going toe-to-toe with the likes of Johan Ackermann, Matt Dawson and Olivier Brouzet- there is no contest in this match if you’re being sensible.
“Looking at the scoreline and you’re like, “Really, how is that possible!?” But it is, and it was.
“Players can’t be kidded, but when they look around that circle and their opposite number, they have to know that they can win that individual battle and then it comes to the collective.
“We knew that our collective was special because we were the underdogs, always.”
The Exiles were 24-0 to the good when the first 40 minutes were up, with a particular moment before the break handing Irish advantage beyond the scoreboard despite Ben Cohen regaining some foothold in the affair.
O’Shea continued: “At around half-time there was an altercation between Brendan and Matt Dawson, and you knew that he had gotten to the one person on their team who made them tick.
“The psychological battle was done and dusted, and there was only going to be one winner in anything like that.
“I often make analogies as a coach and say that games are a roller coaster, you can go into games on a down and keep on going, or you can work your way out of it because it will come back.
“Brendan was very good at having simple plays to get us back on task, everyone knew their job and it would calibrate you.
“Brendan would take it up, the forwards would come round the corner, everyone would get their hands on the ball and people just did the simple things very well which gave us the confidence to get going again.”
With Venter orchestrating those on the pitch, O’Shea and his staff watched keenly from the stands, tactically masterminding the maiden trophy success for the Club which paid dividends when Geoff Appleford crossed for Irish’s fourth.
“When you reminisce you always think of it as easy or a cake walk, and it wasn’t, it was a war, a real fight but the scoreline sort of ran away, which is why I say it is a rollercoaster.
“When you get momentum, you don’t want to lose that, everything starts to stick, and the other team starts to chase.
“Our aggressive defence was innovative and was sort of a blueprint for teams to come, like Wasps under Warren Gatland.
“There were holes to be picked but what Northampton did was start running against us, which you cannot do, you have to kick against us and if you were good enough to go over us, fine, but you can’t go through us.
“Justin Bishop was great for that outward defence, hovering around to then commit to somebody and pick off interceptions, and Paul Sackey learned how to do it and it became one of his traits going to Wasps.
“Interceptions aren't flukes or bad play but come from a different type of pressure and Northampton didn’t have a choice but to chase the game, even with greats like Paul Grayson and John Leslie who were doing things they didn’t want to do.”
Two decades on, the special events that remain etched into O’Shea’s memory are the raucous scenes after the all-important scores were achieved.
“The moment that sticks out to me is Bishy’s celebrations throughout the game.”
“It’s very rare that you get into a cup final that you can sit back and enjoy it, and it’s rare that down through the years of supporting London Irish that you can enjoy something comfortably, usually your put through the ringer!”
The lack of longing for the final whistle for the Exile Nation meant the party atmosphere started early, a win that meant so much for those fans and his players too.
“When we took the journey down to Twickenham and saw the Irish supporters there, it’s almost poetic because it was just a sea of green, albeit with Northampton fans there but it was mostly Irish, and the team just grew wings then.
“Sometimes you can eke your way through a tournament to the latter stages, but 75,000 people went to that game and when you went into the final it felt Irish and full of Irish people.
“Success for Irish teams wasn’t a massive thing to that point and the Club was and still is a massive focal point for the Irish community in London and the UK.
“We weren’t used to winning, so people like Eddie Halvey, Baz kicking the goals, Bish scoring twice and saluting the crowd gave it that Irish flavour, real special moments.
“Dick Best would have Declan Danaher, at just 17 years old, come and charge down my kicks in training, doing it with the same intensity as his coaching- a brilliant person and to have a day like that, no one deserves it more and I’m sure he’ll get more as a coach.
“When I first came to Irish in ‘95, Justin used to get the train from Bristol University to Maidenhead and then another on Tuesday and Thursday nights to train and did that religiously- talk about mollycoddled pros nowadays.
“To see him have that opportunity through all the caps he got for Ireland and what he gave and sacrificed for that Club, there are days that are just meant for people like him and deserve it so much.”
Personally, for O’Shea, the historic day flared a sense of pride in his identity and is happy to see the Irish flame alive at the Club in the twenty years since.
“I met my wife through the Club, we now have kids, and, in many ways, it is where I grew up having left Ireland for the first time.
“I found a home from home with many friends, some of whom have since passed like Gary Halpin, but people like him that came over with me and had times modern professionals wish they could have had.
“The link between the supporters and playing group was so close, going to the Irish Youth Foundation ball every year and seeing the Irish community raising funds for the Irish not as fortunate as us, which made up the crowd that day.
“Hearing them sing ‘Fields of Athenry’ gets you a bit emotional because you don’t understand what you are playing for until you are older, and that was pretty special.
“People back home would say to me that the first result they would look for outside of their own provinces was London Irish’s.
“It’s nice and it’s important to still see that Irish link maintained with people like Sean [O’Brien] and Paddy [Jackson], no matter how professional you are it’s so important that the identity is ingrained somewhere.”