With the Rugby World Cup looming large on the horizon the start of the 2015/16 Aviva Premiership season has understandably taken a back seat. A flurry of transfer activity has taken place for many teams which has gone under the radar. New recruits from the Southern Hemisphere arriving post World Cup are numerous and for London Irish this includes a new head coach, Tom Coventry, from the Chiefs alongside a number of players. They have also recruited talent from closer to home making their squad the most competitive it has been for a number of seasons.
The London Irish academy has produced numerous excellent players in recent years only for them to be picked off by bigger clubs. The club played an important role in the development of both Delon and Steffon Armitage. More recently Jonathan Joseph, Marland Yarde, Anthony Watson, Tom Homer, Matt Garvey, Jamie Gibson and Alex Corbisiero have come through at Irish before moving to more successful Premiership clubs often Bath. The back line that they could possess would have been one of the best in the league if the young starlets had not moved on. It is hard to not have sympathy for a club that is producing England internationals but not reaping the rewards for any sustained period of time. In the current side Alex Lewington stands out as a future star and recently was selected on the bench for the England XV against the Barbarians. It is important for Irish that they hold on to such players and stop the exodus of talent. It has taken some time but this summer London Irish may have finally replenished their squad into a position of strength.
Among the imports from Super Rugby are All Blacks prop Ben Franks, Scrum-half Brendan McKibbin from the Waratahs and Englishmen Matt Symons from the Chiefs. Franks will provide some much needed quality and experience to the Irish Front Row. McKibbin will provide some class at 9 which will be needed to replace the departing Tomas O’Leary. McKibbin is a talented player who has been picked in past Australia squads without earning a cap and offers a reliable kicking option for goal. The most exciting of these signings in my opinion is Symons who is a 25 year old second row. He grew up in England and was briefly involved in the GB rowing. Symons played for Esher before moving to New Zealand where he worked his way up to a regular for the Chiefs. His performances have been so good that there was some dialogue from the All Blacks set-up about him potentially playing for New Zealand down the line. However Symons wants to play for England and that was one of the reasons that has brought him back to the Premiership. He is definitely a player to watch out for.
London Irish have recruited well from other Premiership sides including the signings of Joe Trayfoot and Asaeli Tikoirotuma from Harlequins. Trayfoot has performed well when given opportunities and many were disappointed to see him leave the Stoop. Tikoirotuma showed glimpses of talent in his one season in England so far and linking back up with former coach Tom Coventry will only aid his transition. They have made astute experienced signings as well in the form of Dom Waldouck and crucially Andy Goode. Waldouck is very talented but was blighted with injuries at Northampton however a run of games could help him regain the level of performances he showed at Wasps. Goode is arguably the most important signing as his performances with Worcester and most recently Wasps have showed that he is still a top performer in the Premiership. He has guided Wasps brilliantly from one half of the table to the other and could do a similar job for Irish. His experience and goal kicking could be invaluable in tight matches. Lion’s tourist and Scottish international Sean Maitland should provide some star quality to the back three to accompany the likes of Lewington. Irish have managed to sign David Sisi back on loan for the season after he left to join Bath with a number of other palyers. Sisi is a very talented back rower who played for the England U20s but has struggled to get regular first team rugby in a very competitive Bath back row. Sisi alongside Trayfoot will add to the likes of Tom Guest, Blair Cowan and Ofisa Treviranus which will make the back row a real area of strength for London Irish. All these signings combined with the highly rated coaching of Tom Coventry could make London Irish a tough opponent next season.
The quality of the Premiership seems to be ever improving. The sides at the bottom of the table, with the exception of London Welsh, are becoming more competitive. Newcastle made real strides last year and Worcester will pose much more of a challenge than Welsh did. Gloucester have a strong outfit on paper and after a disappointing first season under David Humphreys they will be looking to challenge for automatic Champions Cup qualification. This means that next season’s competition will be even more challenging and competitive than this year. Therefore it will be by no means straightforward for London Irish to rise up the table. However everything they have done off the field so far points in the right direction. The effect of the World Cup on the Premiership season is hard to predict but it could play into the hands of Irish. They will have less internationals in the tournament than other sides and should not be effected by any sort of World Cup hangover. London Irish’s relative freshness and new look side could make them the surprise package of the 2015/16 season.