How an IRFU stake in London Irish could look and players that could feature
"We have to find a way."
Back in October 2022, near the end of an hour-long chat with David Nucifora, the prospect of an IRFU stake in London Irish was put to the IRFU Performance Director.
It was not a shot in the dark, rather a natural query after the Australian had openly mused how the union, and the four provinces, would ensure enough game time for their best players and prospects, to stave off foreign clubs swooping for talent.
The British & Irish Cup is no more and the IRFU ended up bringing an 'A' team on their 2022 tour to New Zealand, fielding a similar side against a touring Maori All Blacks [in November] and jetting 'Emerging Ireland' to South Africa, in September, for a mini tournament.
Five months after his chat with an assembled group of rugby writers, Ireland won the Six Nations Grand Slam. Their Under 20s won back-to-back Grand Slams, too. Munster then won the United Rugby Championship after all four provinces reached the quarter finals, and three of the four reached the semis. The only blip was Leinster running out of gas in the Champions Cup final against La Rochelle.
We are getting to the overload stage of top rugby players in the country. Leinster have allowed Dave Kearney and Nick McCarthy to move on - a season after letting Rory O'Loughlin and Jack Dunne head to Exeter and another three join Connacht - mainly because they need to clear the way for the up-and-comers. Nucifora observed:
"Unless we want to sit back and lose our players elsewhere because other countries can come and pick off our best young players, we have to give them an opportunity to play."
He added, "We've got a model that is doing so well that we're not going to have room for the [younger prospects]."
"Down the track, you have to look at everything"
It was put to David Nucifora that, with Welsh rugby facing the possibility of going from four to three clubs, there could be a URC opening. Would there be any possibility of 'a fifth province'?
"I hadn't heard that so I don't really know how feasible that is," said Nucifora. "Maybe in Cork? That'd be good!"
Asked, later in the same meeting, if buying into a Premiership Club, such as London Irish, would be a possibility, Nucifora said all reasonable possibilities would be considered.
"Down the track, you have to look at everything. Some of them are obviously far less feasible that others and there's a financial attachment to it. It's not cheap to run one of these professional teams. At the moment, four teams works but we have to be smarter with how we work with those four teams."
The bleak turn of events in the English Premiership, though, may have opened the door to the IRFU getting a big piece of a side that they could keep many of the better elements [such as academies, facilities, staff] and furnish with veteran players and decent provincial prospects. While the union said there were no plans, at present, to invest outside of Ireland 'the RFU has informally kept the IRFU updated on the situation at London Irish'.
How, then, would the IRFU taking some sort of stake, or striking up a partnership agreement, with London Irish look?
Buying the club outright seems unlikely as there will be plenty of other parties in Ireland querying why money is being funnelled into it and, for example, away from Sevens, women's, club and underage rugby.
It is more likely that there could be a stake in the club secured, or a player and coach exchange programme worked out, heavily tilted from Ireland to England. There would be little sense in relocating the club to Ireland as it would take so much away from what it is all about. A deal could be worked out with Brentford for renewed use of the ground if there was solid financial backing behind it.
The Exiles have a steady, if not over-flowing, fan-base and their academy has produced plenty of gems over the years - England back Henry Arundell being the latest.
The IRFU, if it took a keen interest, would either look to keep Declan Kidney [director of rugby] and Les Kiss [coach] involved but has plenty of decent coaches that could also get involved, such as Ian Keatley, Ian McKinley, Nigel Carolan, Richie Murphy and maybe even Noel McNamara or former London Irish player Sean O'Brien.
As for players, here is a sample XV of existing London Irish players that could be supplemented with established and fringe provincial players. We've popped in two Ireland internationals, in the back row and at 10, to provide some extra leadership to our emerging Exiles. Purely hypothetical but an interesting thought exercise:
POTENTIAL LONDON IRISH XV
15. Henry Arundell (LI)
14. Aaron Sexton (Ulster)
13. Ben Brownlee (Leinster)
12. Shane Mallon (Connacht)
11. Hugh Gavin (Connacht)
10. Ian Madigan (Ulster)
9. Jack Oliver (Munster)
1. George Morris (Leinster)
2. Augustin Creevy (LI)
3. Paddy McCarthy (Leinster)
4. Evan O'Connell (Munster)
5. Joe Hopes (Ulster)
6. Rhys Ruddock (Leinster)
7. Juan Martin Gonzalez (LI)
8. Brian Gleeson (Munster)
While the IRFU is monitoring the situation, the English RFU has stated London Irish will not be involved in any league of cup competitions, next season. That means they will all but certainly shed their entire playing squad.
Saracens, Bath and Northampton are already looking at the club's top players, with others likely to end up in France, or further afield. Even if the IRFU were to have some kind of involvement, it is unlikely they would have to make a decision on Paddy Jackson. The former Ulster and Ireland outhalf should be snapped up by another Premiership or Top 14 side before the 2023/24 season gets underway.
As for giving more game-time to young and fringe Irish players, an 'Emerging Ireland' team in South Africa's Currie Cup is a more likely scenario than London Irish becoming 'the fifth province'.
Want an even better use of that money? Use it to top-up those women's rugby contracts and improve the standards and structures around the AIL so it can be an easier stepping stone between club and provincial rugby.
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