Eight Club debuts from Senior Academy players this season, on top of three Gallagher Premiership debuts, is a haul many Academies would be proud of.
Afolabi Fasogbon, Michael Dykes (Premiership debut), Mikey Summerfield, Calum Scott, Ollie Allan, Monty Bradbury, Jack Walsh, Tarek Haffar (Premiership and Club debuts) and Joe Vajner (Premiership and Club debuts) have all made their imprint in the London Irish jersey this season in one form or another.
From derby day hattricks against Harlequins to clutch set-piece wins in cup fixtures, the Academy and its products continue to shine in the senior environment as Exiles.
The line of success keeps growing, evidenced in the five more Senior Academy signatures confirmed last week as more prospective talents wait in the wings at Hazelwood to make their mark in Brentford.
“Guys like Tarek [Haffar] as a young prop to be consistently in the matchday 23 aged 20, there aren’t many props like him about,” Patrick O’Grady, London Irish Academy Manager praised.
“We had many earn their first team debuts, Michael Dykes got his Premiership debut and made that one to remember, Afolabi Fasogbon has kicked-on for us and England.”
The international arena has been no exception to showcasing the burgeoning talents that Irish has to offer, with the youngsters viewing an England shirt as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
Four Irish players in the England under-20 Six Nations campaign saw the likes of Chandler Cunningham-South score twice in three games and Monty Bradbury register four try assists.
Academy graduates Henry Arundell, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Will Joseph have all achieved their maiden senior international caps for England, Irish’s first representation in the set-up for nigh-on a decade.
That’s not to mention four recent England under-19 caps and three under-18 debuts, with O’Grady only seeing the benefits of players representing their respective countries.
“The international honours are a good representation of where we are at, and our job is to make sure those guys can come through to the Senior Academy and make a big impact on the first team long-term.
“It’s great that they get to experience different coaches and environments, they essentially get to train and play with the best players in the country and that will improve and develop performance.
“Consistent high-level training and competition exposure will develop you as a player and it’s a good reference point, but just because a player hasn’t made an international age-group at that age, it doesn’t mean they won’t make it.
“We’ve had late developers in the system that wouldn’t have had that exposure, Tom Pearson was playing at a different position altogether at that age, let alone for his country.”
With Pearson picking up four individual awards over the last three months, it’s easy to see the appeal of what the London Irish Academy has on offer.
That’s not to say it’s been a plain-sailing last twelve months for O’Grady and his set-up.
The Manager evaluates the trials and tribulations encountered and explains how his team counteract obstacles as one Academy unit.
“As we do every season, I think we have made massive strides,” O’Grady explained.
“There’s always going to be setbacks as the landscape continuously changes, the end goal is to always produce players for London Irish but it’s the way we do that.
“We’ll always have injuries and results that go our way, but the biggest thing for me is the way staff approach things as a team through a multi-disciplinary approach.
“Rehabbing a player is a setback we never want, but I find we improve as a team through our processes and that can be addressing an area of a player’s game we need to improve too.
“The challenges come both on and off the field, but by sticking to our plans, and as an Academy we are becoming better for those obstacles we overcome, just as a player would.”
Through good and bad results for the first team, pride in the Academy and its members both on and off the field has been a constant this season from the London Irish faithful, and O’Grady is keen to keep that momentum going.
“We want to keep building that representation on matchday, the Academy is the foundation of the Club and we never sit back and rest for a moment.
“Whilst it’s great to have the success of boys not only in our programme and our age-grades, but also, they’re getting international honours and making Premiership debuts.
“We want to get better year-on-year, and in recent years we’ve noticeably been developing and evolving what we do as an Academy midseason.
“There’s no way anyone in the Academy will set back and admire our work for too long, we’re always looking to build and improve.”
One of the greatest successes of the last year arrived in the form of the Club’s sole piece of silverware this term – the Premiership Rugby Under-18 Academy League.
Tries from Louie Heard, Kepu Tuipulotu, Finn Worley Brady and George Goodridge, as well as a late Rory Taylor penalty earned a 27-19 win over Northampton Saints at the StoneX Stadium.
The ambitious environment nurtured in Sunbury-on-Thames only added to the desire to end a three-year absence from the top of the Academy structure in England.
“We’re massively proud of the work done, we don’t set the end goal as winning results but as an Academy team I think it is a by-product of how we go about our business.
“It’s great for the boys and the Club, it’s an ultra-competitive environment that they want to win, but I think it’s the support we have in place in our system that results like that happen.
“To be able to present the players at a home game against Sale at half-time was excellent for them, in particular given the time and effort that has gone on through the years to then come to fruition is fantastic.
“That will be a lifelong memory and hopefully they go on to become a big part of the Club.”
Coach and player involvement from the Academy in the senior side is a unique aspect of the structure at Irish; with Senior Academy players training with the first team, as well as coaches such as James Lightfoot Brown and Jonathan Fisher heavily involved in the application of training.
O’Grady explained: “It’s pretty unique, in particular from a coaching capacity, where we have staff who work all the way through our pathway and have a big impact on the first team.
“That’s the same pathway we want for our players, as a programme we always want to evolve so why not represent that in the staff and their journey?
“We’re doing a lot of coaching development out in the community to enhance the level of rugby in the schools within our catchment area too.
“Rhys Davies (DPP Manager) would head that up in the community game and that’s all the way up to Jack Pattinson (Junior Academy Lead Coach), Fish [Jonathan Fisher], Lights [James Lightfoot Brown] and myself would head that up at Hazelwood to community, Club and school coaches.
“We pick certain topics to delve into and use reference points from first team players to discuss trends in the game and how you can support and develop skillsets.
“There’s a big footage base that we reference and go through the next steps of challenging the player and give them food for thought so when they go into their environments they’re reenergised with new ideas.”
With the reputation of the London Irish Academy growing at a healthy rate, is it a challenge to keep the expectations of the newly introduced boys at a grounded level?
O’Grady believes not, as he and his team instead utilise the stars of the Irish team as aspirations in order to chart the route to success for the current Academy intake.
“They’re aware of the reputation, but it’s good for them to see it as an entry point for the opportunity ahead.
“The work that has gone in from the staff and players to get to that level is evident and we make that very clear to anyone coming in that if you want to be a Henry Arundell with his carrying or a Tom Pearson with his off-the-ball ability, we have those reference points.
“We can explain how a player got there and this is what it takes, here’s the support we can give you but ultimately these are the sacrifices that need to be made to get to that end product.
“There’s no complacency from their side, and we wouldn’t have that anyway.”
At the end of a campaign naturally sees the parting of ways with Academy players leaving to study or pursue alternative avenues in their career.
The university route in rugby has only recently been championed, with Pearson a glowing example of how players can develop away from an Academy system and come into the fold as a more than capable player.
With current players such as Monty Bradbury studying at Birkbeck, University of London, O’Grady encouraged the dual academic and rugby process reassures that the Club will maintain links with players not signed onto the Senior Academy this year.
“Signing a lad at 17 or 18 is quite early in rugby, it’s a late maturation sport and not everyone is in the position to be physically developed and able to impose themselves on a gem as they would like.
“The Academy programme gives them a great experience across various disciplines like strength & conditioning, psychology, rehab and then the rugby side, and when they go off to university, they are more developed than others.
“BUCS universities have such high-level programmes that they can still train consistently at a great level, and we have those years to keep an eye on their development and bring them back into our programme, almost like a safety net.
“Being disconnected from the Club though, you still want to see the real ownership of their development and make those sacrifices.”
For those who made the grade this season; Ralph McEachran, Rory Taylor, Toby Maddock, Charlie Moss and Finn Worley Brady, Patrick O’Grady has every belief that the quintuple can reach big heights with the Club.
“There’s a big gap between signing a lad at 18 and them making an impact at Premiership or international level, but we see something in those five boys and the attributes they possess that they can kick-on.
“They have the right mentality and dedication to their craft that there is something to work with, and our experience as a staff enables us to marry up their capabilities to those reference points in the likes of Henry [Arundell] and Tom [Pearson] in order to get them to the top level.
“We’re excited by them, they’re five lads who with the right application, will have bright futures at London Irish.”