Neale Harvey of the weekly Rugby Paper spoke to four of London Irish’s homegrown back-line hitmen before the coronavirus lockdown to discover how they are taking the Premiership by storm – boosting their England chances to boot.
Wing wizard Ollie Hassell-Collins believes the good times are ready to roll again at London Irish – led by an exciting new breed of back three players given a license to thrill.
Joint-top of the Premiership scoring charts before the season was tragically interrupted, Newbury-bred Hassell-Collins, 21, is in the vanguard of an Irish renaissance that carries echoes of the club’s rock-and-roll past when homegrown superstars such as Delon Armitage, Topsy Ojo, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Marland Yarde roamed the Madejski Stadium.
All sadly departed, followed latterly by Joe Cokanasiga to Bath, but the development pathway remains strong and burgeoning back division flyers Hassell-Collins, Ben Loader, Tom Parton and Matt Williams have been entrusted to carry the torch in the Exiles first team this season – four years after featuring together in the Irish U18s team that became Premiership champions.
With a move to Brentford in the offing and having helped Irish break the cycle of being relegated back to the Championship, England prospect Hassell-Collins told The Rugby Paper: “Personally, I couldn’t have asked for much more this season. It comes down to the coaches giving you opportunities and it definitely helped me being exposed in the Championship last season.
“It’s obviously a bit different to the Premiership but you come up against some really good players and it prepares you for what you might find in the top-flight. Some of the grounds you play at and the atmospheres are incredible – it tests you mentally and physically.
“For example, we played at Jersey, which was our first loss of the season, and that was a really tough experience just because the crowd was so close to you. You could hear them shouting and they got right on our backs, but it was great exposure ahead of this season.
“Having someone like Waisake Naholo coming in has also been a big help. After playing for the All Blacks, he’s given us younger lads some really good advice. Loader, Parton, Williams and myself, he’s always giving us little tips that are proving really useful to all of us.”
As Exeter Chiefs have proved with their band of 2013 Junior World Cup winners, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Hill, Ollie Devoto and Alec Hepburn, bonds forged at club and country age group level can be powerful weapons in the battle for Premiership supremacy.
As well as coming through the junior ranks together at Irish, Hassell-Collins, Loader, Parton and Williams have also represented England U20s and the intuitive understanding the hungry quartet have developed is serving them equally well on the top-flight stage.
Williams, 22, who hails from Ascot and grew up alongside Henley-born Parton through schools rugby from the age of 11, explained: “It’s pretty cool and the time you really notice it is when we’re all playing together now – we kind of just know where each other is.
“The first time I played against ‘Dolly’ (Parton) was when I was 11 for the Prep School Barbarians, but we went to Wellington College when we were 13, where Loader went too, and we’ve played with each other pretty much the whole way through. If I’m playing centre with Hassell-Collins and Loader on the wings and Dolly at 15, we instinctively know where we are.
“I got into the first team squad at the beginning of this season and there’s a foundation of players here now who’ve come through the club from the U18s and know how it works. The stronger the bonds are, the easier it is to work harder for each other when you get into tough spots because you care so much about it. Everyone’s being pushed really hard as well.”
Despite the presence of imported stars such as Naholo, Curtis Rona and Paddy Jackson, Irish’s fledgling quartet have been holding their own in terms of selection and Parton, also 22, is grateful for director of rugby Declan Kidney’s insistence on giving youth a chance.
Parton explained: “A big thing Declan has pushed is how he wants to build a team around a core group of academy guys, and we just need to take those opportunities when they come. If we don’t perform, it’s our own doing really because we’re being given every chance.
“I think we’ve been playing some really good rugby, though, and whilst achieving consistency is challenging, it’s been a good learning curve for a lot of young guys. I’ve been playing with Matt since I was 11 and with Ben and Ollie for over five years, so we’ve got that chemistry between us and we’ve come a fair way since winning the Premiership U18s title in 2016.
“That was a good day for us, one we’ve remembered in our London Irish time, and to go on and play together in the Premiership is pretty special. In our last game against Sale, it was me, Ollie and Ben together in the back three and we’ve played a number of games now. That’s really exciting and hopefully we can all kick-on now with the move to Brentford.”
While the powerful Hassell-Collins hit the headlines in February by notching four tries against Gloucester, joining a select band of players to achieve the feat which includes rugby royalty such as Jerry Guscott and Geordan Murphy, it was Loader who stole a march on his youthful teammates in the international stakes after appearing for England against the Barbarians last summer.
Loader, who might have made it as a fast bowler in cricket before concentrating on rugby after coming through the ranks of Reading Abbey RFC, is now aiming to follow in the footsteps of Armitage, Ojo, Watson, Joseph, Yarde and Cokanasiga by winning his first senior cap.
“First and foremost, we’ve all got to do it at club level, but every one of us wants to play for England and that’s certainly a big goal for me,” says Loader, 21. “After playing in the U20s it can feel like you’re off the radar but it’s good to know people have their eye on you and you’ve just got to focus on your club while having that end goal in the back of your mind.
“The Madejski Stadium is pretty near to where I live in Reading and I remember watching London Irish games there as a youngster when guys like Delon Armitage and Topsy Ojo were tearing it up. It was always exciting seeing the Irish back three coming through the ranks and having guys like Watson, Joseph and Yarde following them was really inspiring.
“Topsy’s been super influential in helping us all develop through being able to train with him towards the end of his career and there’s always been back three talent coming through here. Joe Cokanasiga left, but his younger brother, Phil, is coming through as well now and we all want to be part of the future of this club – the club want to see that as well.”
Like Hassell-Collins, Loader benefitted from time in the Championship last season. He added: “Last year certainly served a purpose for us and it was really pleasing to play regularly. Being blooded in the first team enabled us to get some solid games under our belts alongside some older guys and this season we’ve seen the benefits and are reaping rewards.
“Ollie’s been absolutely flying and the rest of us, injury permitting, have been there or thereabouts throughout the season as well. I love playing with these guys, we’ve been playing together since I first started at Irish and it’s fantastic to see the new breed coming through. We want to push this club in the right direction now and the mood is super positive.”
Of the highly-ambitious quartet, Hassell-Collins has arguably made the greater impact this season by starting 11 of Irish’s 13 Premiership games and notching seven tries, including his four-try blast against Gloucester in the middle of a three-match run of victories which established Irish as top-six contenders, something they last achieved in season 2010-11.
“I probably got lucky,” says Hassell-Collins modestly. “There were two-on-ones where I had to just run in and I’ve got to give credit to the boys inside for giving me the opportunity to score, but things really clicked for us that day and you’ve got to enjoy things like that.
“There are always improvements you can make, though, and I’ll go back over my games with guys like Waisake Naholo and Stephen Myler to see what I could have done better. Myler’s massive for me, his rugby knowledge is incredible really and if you drop a ball or make a mistake, it’s always about the next job. He can be hard on you, but it’s always constructive.”
As Irish’s effervescent wannabes prepare to embark on the next stage of an embryonic journey that the club’s management hope will pave the way to success and silverware at the Brentford Community Stadium rather than them seeking riches elsewhere, Hassell-Collins adds: “It definitely feels like there’s something special happening between us and the club.
“It’s helpful that we won the U18s title together a few years back and have come through the club, gelling as we have. We all help each other to improve – the forwards who were in that U18s team as well – and we’re pushing ourselves to get better and better.
“There’s a real good vibe at the club and with people like Naholo, Adam Coleman and Sean O’Brien coming in with the vast amount of international experience they have, that’s been helpful to the players and coaches as well. They’ve brought something new from everywhere around the world so the whole team is improving as we’ve been going along.
“The league shows how much we’ve improved and when we won those three games in a row against Northampton, Gloucester and Harlequins, it showed that we want to stay here and we’re not going to go away lightly. We’ve improved massively, the scores show that and whenever we’re able to resume our league campaign, we’ll be determined to build on it.”
Eleven years ago, a London Irish side containing eight homegrown stars lost the 2009 Premiership final to Leicester Tigers by a point. Can the new breed go one further? Time and a willingness to remain at the club and fight for the cause could be the critical factor.