16 May 2022
Outlined by Jonathan Fisher, the Club’s Academy Forwards Coach, London Irish’s objective for the Premiership Rugby Cup prior to the commencement of the 2021/22 campaign couldn’t be more transparent.
Irish are on the brink of cup glory once again, 20 years to the season that the Exiles attained their first and only piece of major silverware and the last time they had reached a cup final as a Premiership outfit.
Many an Exiles squad have attempted and to reach the heights of that ‘Class of ‘02’, and still, the Club hold that Powergen Cup triumph over Northampton Saints dearly to the present day.
How have Declan Kidney’s team; players, coaches and staff, brought the perennial underdogs back to the cusp of domestic knockout glory, and what sets them apart from the rest who have tried but ultimately faltered?
Head Coach Les Kiss explains: “As Declan and I have often said, this is a process in learning to win and what it takes to win, not just the result but every minute in front of you.
“‘WIN’, or ‘What’s Important Now’, it’s a mantra of staying focused in the moment and delivering the best version of yourself, and I think that has been a driving force for us.
“Aligned with that, I know there is a desire in the Club to deliver something here, which is exciting now and we have an opportunity to do that- part of growing as a Club is to stand in that moment and deliver, which is what we will look to do on Tuesday night.”
“We have had a clear focus on it, we have sat down as a group, myself, Declan Danaher and Lights, who have overseen the development of this group and said that our performance and success in this competition will justify the work that gets done by those that are outside of the usual matchday 23,” Academy Forwards Coach Jonathan Fisher added.
“We definitely have a deeper understanding of what we are trying to do when we step on the pitch,” James Lightfoot-Brown, Academy Backs Coach, credits a collective comprehension of playing style as a core basis of why Irish are in the conversation of silverware.
“Our identity has started to build, maybe more so in previous years and this tournament has tested our squad depth and cohesion simply because you don’t have as much time together.
“It’s testament to Les Kiss, who has really spotted an opportunity to drive home our identity, no matter what team we put out we have an understanding of what we have to do.”
Northampton Saints 26-36 London Irish - 13th November 2021 – Premiership Rugby Cup, round one
The first pit-stop en route to a Brentford Community Stadium final was a trip to the East Midlands to face Chris Boyd’s Northampton Saints in round one of the Premiership Rugby Cup.
A swashbuckling first 40 minutes for Irish saw them register four of their five tries, taking a 19-point lead in at the break after tries from James Stokes, Chunya Munga, Hugh O’Sullivan, and Benhard van Rensburg.
The third of Irish’s tries on the day and last in the first half saw Hugh O’Sullivan notch his first try for the Exiles in a flowing move that proved successful on numerous occasions that afternoon, a five-pointer that’s execution pleased Lightfoot-Brown.
“We spoke a lot about the opportunity to get the ball to these areas, Cillian Redmond comes off his wing to create opportunities and we scored three tries off a similar movement and used it very well.
“Hugh O’Sullivan on the inside there was outstanding and was very pleasing, having identified throughout the week the need to get to the outside shoulders of our ball carriers which we did well.
“Cillian and James Stokes connect on the move to create an opportunity on the ball with Benhard van Rensburg, and if Cillian is not there, he doesn’t get his hands free with Jack Cooke on the support.
“Cookey has been outstanding for us in this competition, he’s definitely a London Irish man and he has the respect of all the coaches and players and it’s great to see him have an impact there.”
Saints mounted a fightback in the second stanza nonetheless, with James Fish, Josh Gillespie and Tom Litchfield all scoring to bring the scoreboard all square.
Van Rensburg ultimately scored the decisive try, which, combined with Rory Jennings’ kicking, sealed Irish’s best start to the competition possible as the Exiles walked away with five points from the cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens.
London Irish 29-20 Saracens – 19th November 2021 – Premiership Rugby Cup, round two
Next up for the Irish was the first of two London derbies in the pool stages of the Premiership Rugby Cup, taking on former Exile Mark McCall’s Saracens at the Brentford Community Stadium.
It was a near repeat in pattern of the game the week previous, with Irish racing into a 21-point advantage thanks to efforts from Ollie Hassell-Collins, Terrence Hepetema and Steve Mafi.
The fascinating mechanics of Hassell-Collins’ opener saw prominent forward play to lay the foundations for the winger to score.
Fisher expounded: “Over the course of the last 18 months, we have been looking a lot at Chunya Munga and his speed into the air and how he holds shape in the air, something England identified when he was in their camp.
“It’s the precision of the delivery, he gets up quite well and keeps his shape but what we want that delivery from his hands to Ben White’s to be as quick as possible to give the edge.”
“The two guys running behind at the start of the play giving animation give enough focus off Tom, and when the ball hits Tom, he just explodes off his outside foot and offsets Dom Morris, a seasoned centre for Saracens,” Kiss elucidated.
Irish’s Head Coach states that Tom Pearson was used as a “focal point” for attack, with Fisher elaborating on Pearson’s work behind the scenes enabled such a play.
“This is very rewarding as we have quite a clear principle of how we want our forwards to attack the ball in the air.
“This was something when Tom Pearson came in in the summer, he was quite far behind in his teammates and peers in and credit to him, it’s something he identified he wasn’t quite at the races with this so there was time spent on some mundane practices like approaching and attacking the ball.
“Once the ball is in the air, he just changes his angle to power off the outside foot, goes back and meets the ball and t’s very difficult there for Dom Morris to pick that up when the ball is in the air.”
Tom Pearson details how on his maiden home outing he aimed to impress the home crowd and coaches after a ‘Man of the Match’ debut in the Premiership against Exeter Chiefs.
“It was my first start at Brentford and I really wanted to go well, stamp down the way I play and improve on my previous performances and prove they weren’t one-offs.
“It was a good lineout ball, I cut back to the ball there quickly and I got a break through midfield through one of the set plays, I saw the two-on-one and tried to run as late as possible.
“A play like that is a combination of set-pieces and great support play from Matty and Ben White, we probably run that move five or six times in a week and it’s pleasing when that comes off.”
Kiss concluded: “The way we finished this was brilliant; we had Ben White who is there first, does a massive clean out and Ollie picks up the dregs and drops over the line, as a good supporting winger should do.”
Irish had to endure another threatening yet ultimately unsuccessful retort that was spearheaded by a Ben Harris brace and Rotimi Segun try.
Cillian Redmond bagged his first in Irish colours in the third quarter and Rory Jennings’ clutch kicking enabled Irish to establish a commanding, maximum-point lead at the helm of Pool 3.
London Irish 34-19 Harlequins – 18th March 2022 – Premiership Rugby Cup, round four
Premiership Rugby Cup action returned in March and Irish commenced the St. Patrick’s Party celebrations a week early with a memorable win over west London contenders Harlequins, wrapping up 34-19 to the Exiles.
It was another impressive first score that demonstrated positive work from the forwards of Irish, Albert Tuisue taking no prisoners in his first cup start since 2019 with a try alongside an effort from Mike Willemse in the first-half.
Fisher walks through the first of five tries on the evening, where the hulking number eight Tuisue barrelled over from a well-worked lineout.
“Tactically, in terms of preparing for these options they are fairly challenging because a lot of teams typically will not allow you to take space middle or tail on their own try line on a seven-man lineout.
“It will look like a lot of dummy movement here, and credit to Corniel with the creation of this play, but Quins do stay deep and it’s just the dummy prior to TP jumping that offsets the Quins defence, and then Albert is hard to stop, isn’t it?
“It’s an excellent play there, but there is a lot of nuances to that lineout manoeuvre to make sure we can create the space at the tail.
“Thereafter, you’re gambling really as if they stay there and get up in the air, it would be difficult to win the ball but we make it work.
“It’s all about creating plays to bring the biggest strengths of your personnel to the fore, and Albert full-tilt coming round the back of a lineout, well… Typically it will be a wing or 10 defending there, especially when we attack with seven men.”
On an evening of set-piece domination, the Academy Forwards Coach spoke of his satisfaction in seeing young forwards such as Jack Cooke and Tom Pearson play this season, both of whom lined up against the west London rivals.
“They’re gifted players with a lot of talent, but what the Club hasn’t done for too long is probably from the generation of Max Lahiff, Alex Corbisiero to now is to develop young, home-grown forwards here to take the Club forward, which is what my remit and responsibility was when I came into the job in 2018.
“The most pleasing thing for me has been to observe performances from the likes of Ben Donnell, Chunya Munga, Luke Green, Lucas Brooke, Josh Smart and Tom Pearson coming in and performing, being physical and competing has been a promising sign for me personally.
“Historically speaking, the Club has always been able to produce quick and gifted outside backs, but we needed a bit more guts about us and I think we’re in a good place and certainly trending in the right direction up front with those young forwards.”
Les Kiss was determined to give praise to the youngsters who have emerged this season in a more prominent role, both on and off the field, who have been “intrinsic” to tournament progression.
“The first thing we talk about is the players, which is right, but I would like to highlight that this has been a massive coaching effort as well.
“The assistant coaches have done a brilliant job this year, not only in the Academy but also as senior coaches- Jonathan Fisher and James Lightfoot-Brown, the way they have added to the senior coaching set-up has really driven our Prem Cup campaign.
“When you have got those two guys and someone like Declan Danaher, who bleeds the Club, who sits and mentors those two guys, it’s powerful when you have people invested in that way.
“What those young coaches have done has been brilliant and has been intrinsic in where we have got to in this tournament.
“There are a lot of unbelievable experiences that came through for us and it is a real shining beacon to get to where we are with some brilliant young talent coming through as players and coaches.
“It’s not by accident, there is a lot of good work going in by coaches at all levels and the players are committed to the Club, so it’s nice to see them get their reward.”
Two star backs in Will Joseph and Henry Arundell have caught the eye of the rugby world in recent weeks, with much more to come from the Hazelwood production line according to Lightfoot-Brown.
“Henry Arundell and Will Joseph have also been brilliant, coming on in the Premiership and in Europe over the last few weeks which has excited us as coaches and the fans.
“There’s plenty more of them who have positively impacted this cup campaign with their performances and a number of others who are waiting for their opportunity.
“The pleasing thing for me is how much their strengths have come through in the games we have seen them play, Henry and Will are having the impact with the ball that they’d like to and now for us it’s about showing that there are other areas to their game.
“We are going to see a lot more of those guys with complete performances, which is exciting for his Club and hopefully they will be here for another ten years where we can see more aspects of their game come through.”
Tom Pearson is another of the new generation for Irish being brought through off the Hazelwood conveyor belt and has been equally impressed with his younger contemporaries’ recent displays.
“Henry and Will as a combination are really strong, they feed off each other and you can tell they have played a lot together as well.
“People like Lights should be proud of how he’s developed those guys, to come in and dominate straight away at Premiership and European level, which is no mean feat at all.”
Pearson’s emergence in his first campaign has been a revelation for Declan Kidney and co., whose aim before the season was to merely achieve one Premiership appearance, in his words as even his prominent role in the squad has surprised the back-rower.
“To be honest, when I arrived my goal was to play one Premiership game this season and since my debut it’s been a crazy few months.
“I’ve really enjoyed it, it’s been good to get stuck in and play a number of games for Irish.”
12 league games later, the Cardiff Metropolitan graduate has had an immediate impact on Irish’s fortunes and alongside players even younger than himself in the Academy, as Lucas Brooke explains.
“Tom is two or three years older than me but has given me a load of tips, he’s a really nice lad to have around the Club and I love watching him play- he is something I can aspire to work towards, especially playing in the same position with the same sort of style.
“Henry Arundell and Will Joseph have really pushed on and have shined a light for Academy boys the path in how to break through, so we just have to keep working hard like those boys and hopefully our time will come.”
Lightfoot-Brown emphasises the gravity of a potential cup win for a budding young core of the squad that has played a part in a first run to the final in 20 years.
“Patrick O’Grady does a brilliant job behind the scenes allowing myself and Fish to try to provide the young players with everything they require to make that step up.
“The connection we have with the first team is very important, the support that we get from the likes of Brad Davis and Les Kiss to help develop these players creates a brilliant environment for them to maximise their potential.
“For the young group that we have, to win that competition is important- look at the teams that have won cups before and what they have gone on to do.
“That’s why we have been so successful in this competition up to this point, we have managed to blend the selection really well with the young guys where everything is new and then the guys that have plenty of experience.
“It’s been a real opportunity to measure the strength of your squad, not just your top, top players, and I believe we have stood up to that.
“It is also a very exciting opportunity for us and if we get that group together winning trophies, who knows what is next after that.”
Leicester Tigers 41-26 London Irish – 29th March 2022 – Premiership Rugby Cup, round five
“What we took from that game is that a crop of young kids went toe-to-toe with Leicester on their home patch and did exceptionally well, and when we put a little bit more experience with some of those young guys after that learning, they grew and that was important,” Kiss outlined.
Tough yet beneficial learnings had to be taken from a trip to face Leicester Tigers in the final pool match, a team largely composed of youngsters where the average age of the starting 15 was 23 on the evening.
Leicester took the spoils with a 41-26 win, but Irish crucially took a try bonus with them back down south that consequently book themselves a home semi-final against the same opponent.
One of the all-important scores came courtesy of Lucas Brooke, next in line in the back-row options enshrined in gold of late, who describes his debut try for the Exiles off the back of a special lineout move.
“It was a special move we made up in the week, a switch ball drive, which worked really well- the ball went to the back of the lineout, popped it forward and I was the plus one who sneaked in the ball and got the try, they were pretty unsuspecting of it and it was a great tactic that worked well.
“Jonathan Fisher and Corneil van Zyl are the two who helped create that move, called the ‘Vespa’.
“It was a great, great moment for me, I was very nervous coming up to the game but ultimately I really enjoyed the experience despite coming off at half-time due to an injury.”
Fisher analyses some of the great work from the forwards that played a part Brooke’s score, one of the necessary tries for Irish on the night.
“I think the important thing for people to understand here is that is very difficult for these lifters front and back here to maintain their position and balance, particularly as we get hit behind with the man who then comes in with the ball.
“Lucas Brooke comes in on the ball and he has to take this forward straight away, and it’s moments like that where Chandler Cunningham-South keeps his balance well and keeps the ball available.
“Ciaran Parker and Josh Smart are there at the front, tough boys who like to maul and are good at it too, so it’s the right people, right place and very well executed.”
With Tigers having to “earn every inch of that win”, according to Kiss, a scoreline of 41-26 earned Irish a vital try bonus that secured a home semi-final later to be confirmed against the Midlanders.
“All I was thinking about was how I had to perform and do my best, and to show the players and the Club what I have and show why they signed me,” Brooke humbly revealed.
“From an individual point of view, I took a lot of learnings from the speed and intensity of it, giving me an insight of what hopefully is to come in the future.”
“It’s very rare that we get to right the wrongs against the same team, so that was a brilliant experience for players and coaches, certainly for us young coaches,” Lightfoot-Brown said.
“We had an opportunity to review that game knowing we were going to play them again; it gave us real clarity on what we had to work on and everything we were doing in the non-23 sessions was geared towards that opportunity to play Leicester again.”
London Irish 59-20 Leicester Tigers – 26th April 2022 – Premiership Rugby Cup, semi-final
“A just reward for all the graft the boys had put in” is the way Kiss describes the emphatic reversal of fortunes from one round to the next that sealed Irish’s status as a Premiership Rugby Cup final side at the Brentford Community Stadium.
The “clear growth” shown between both meetings of the sides was earmarked as a highlight of the tournament thus far for Fisher, where Irish touched down nine times against the league leaders.
Fisher added: “There were passages in the game against Leicester in the pool stage where we were repeatedly under pressure, but then what was impressive in the semi-final was we were able to go to facets of our game which enabled us to regain the ascendency and break their momentum.
“Having the ability to do that and adapting in the moment is a real strength that we added to our game.”
A crowning performance from the Exiles included an extensive highlight reel of blockbuster rugby, Henry Arundell putting on a show with an exquisite sequence of flowing football.
Lightfoot-Brown stated: “Nothing surprises me with stuff like that from Henry, he’s an incredible talent with the ball in hand and has done this stuff since he was about 15, it’s great to see his biggest strength shine through.”
“Leading up to it, there was a lot of work done by an experienced player in James Stokes, a good hit-and-spin, but what Will Joseph does is just as important with his support play by taking a player out of the line, knowing that he has his man support inside and lays it inside for Henry,” explained the Australian.
“The way Henry and Will go about their job is a reflection of the way we coach, we don’t say don’t make errors, we coach the players to find out how good they can be and to be confident enough in their skillsets, not coached through fear.
“You only learn by experiencing it, and when he chipped it only gives him more confidence to do it later, and he did so against Wasps in the Premiership.”
A try of exemplar transitional rugby was the returning Ben Donnell’s score in the first-half, with Kiss stating that “an unstructured opposition is when Irish become even more powerful as a team.”
“This is a brilliant team try, we spoke about putting them under pressure when we kick the ball and creating opportunities then to attack from that,” Lightfoot-Brown emphasised.
“We did that well to pressurise and turn the ball over, thereafter it’s brilliant support and when we get the ball to the edge, the guys we have flooding through the line, Donnell, Lucio Cinti, that’s exactly what you want to see when you create opportunities.
“We believe we can do that from any situation, we need people going through the line to get on the end of passes and that effort and anticipation from Donnell is great.
“If we don’t make that line break, he has an extra 30 metres to run so for him to make that line break is outstanding.”
Fisher concurs, also emphasising the ground work put in pre-match to study transitional moments against Tigers.
“Chunya had a great performance in this game around the attacking breakdown- some people have a simple remit, and he certainly did as I remember speaking to him pre-match, asking him what the plan was and he said “Fish, hit things and move them!” Spot on!
“He does that very well here, gets the ball available quick and Donnell is already in position there, he’s worked hard after we turn the ball over on the edge to get behind the ball so he’s in a good position to run a lead line there to keep the defenders set for a minute and keep the space on the edge.
“It’s a great support line and a great, great try- it embodies everything about us and was a huge positive around the transition aspect that we looked at and we really tried to develop with these players in that period of time in preparation for these games, and so that is great try to showcase the core principles at play there.”
Arundell’s second of the tie was a sound demonstration of keeping the ball alive for Irish, with fast ruck speed, sound support game and neat finishing aiding in the Exiles securing another vintage score, according to the Academy Backs Coach.
“The important thing for me developing and making us understand what our style is the principle of always being on, keeping the ball alive and know that we have the skillset to expose teams in many moments,” Kiss explained further.
“We have a lot of pride in being able to put a lot of speed onto the ball, we have one of the quickest breakdowns in the league which came through in the Prem Cup and served us well.
“If you have quick ball at the breakdown, you still have got to have people working hard off the ball to give themselves the opportunity to read defences and pull the trigger and here, we see that nicely.
“Albert’s on the outside so we stretch our resources and I thought Henry used him nicely as a ploy, a decoy and he used his footwork to finish it off there with a great finish in tight space.
With history in the making, Irish face Worcester Warriors for the first time in a cup setting since 2008, now with everything on the line.
What would it mean for Fisher to win a cup with a squad laden with talent nurtured by himself and the Academy staff?
“I’ve had many a conversation with these young forwards over the years and tried to make it clear to them that we are here together training this much, this hard and this often, living and applying ourselves a certain way because we are here to win things, and we’re here to win trophies together.
“As a coach, it brings to life the dream that you have been selling for a long, long time and I think as a squad, with the home-grown youngsters it’s the step in the right direction, the first one.
“There’s a lot more hard work to be done after that, but it means that we’re out of the blocks in terms of what the mission is.”
One of those Academy boys, Tom Pearson, believes that Irish would be deserving of such an honour and serve as impetus for future campaigns.
“The way the Club is building is building with new players coming in and blooding young guys, to win a cup this season would be great for us.
“Not only would we deserve it, but it would be a good morale boost to push on.
“It would mean a lot to have that photo at the end of the season with a bit of silverware, something London Irish haven’t done for a little while so hopefully we can make that happen on Tuesday.”
Kiss gracefully outlines the significance to play a part in bringing success back to London Irish and the Exile Nation.
“What I think is important to recognise is how we have used over 50 players and it has been a complete squad and management effort, which is what will mean most to me.
“People worked hard and bought into what Declan and I have been trying to drive, they’ve taken it and moulded it into something pretty special, and to get a return on that for those guys would be pretty special too.
“We recognise what the guys do for us in the commercial side, the Community team, how we drive our message out there, there is a lot of things we hope we can deliver for those guys and we can’t underestimate that.
“Finally, Brentford has been a massive play for us- I don’t know what the crowd numbers will be at this stage, but there would be nothing more important in recent history than to go and win.
“We’ll prepare well, it doesn’t mean we will win but we’ll give a good account of ourselves and if we can get it over the line I’m sure there will be a few tears in the crowd.
“We are a win business, but we like to entertain and give people joy, so I would be so happy to see a lot of supporters who have been with us through thick and thin to get a win.”