It was not always thus. The strength of English rugby was once centred around clubs like Old Millhillians, who drew exclusively from Mill Hill public school in NW7. Denis Thatcher learned his rugby there. The chocolate and white colours were once famous and familiar in first-class circles, but as the game in England was radically altered the old boys became old hat.
Old Millhillians, whose last player to be capped was the wing Jim Roberts in the 1960s, are in London Division Three North West, six leagues adrift of London Irish. This season they have won one out of six league matches. Old Millhillians, founded 107 years ago, no longer have fixtures against first-class clubs and all of them have gone except this one.
It serves a purpose. A healthy crowd, at least in terms of numbers, were in festive mood at Sunbury; the Guinness flowed, the bar staff worked flat out, and some Exiles took the opportunity to display their skills under the noses of the management. Hika Reid, the All Black who coaches London Irish, played prop and his assistant Dean Shelford, the brother of Wayne, appeared at centre and extremely effective he was, too.
Reid and Shelford will shortly have a problem to solve, namely who to play at stand-off, Paul Burke or Niall Malone. Ireland are faced with the same dilemma. Burke, who dazzled Old Millhillians, is on the bench at Lansdowne Road today, understudying Malone for Ireland A against Scotland A. Next Saturday, Burke and his club partner, Rob Saunders, are up against Malone and Michael Bradley in the Irish trial.
Burke, who is 19, is a recent recruit to Ireland's cause. He captained England Colts and played for England Under-21 against Ireland in October. He was born in London and his father Finbarr, a teetotaller who runs the Red Lion public house in Teddington, comes from County Galway. Although highly regarded by England, Burke thinks his chance of winning a senior cap will come sooner with Ireland.
Malone, who is 23, is joining London Irish in the new year from Oxford University. Both Malone, who played in the University match, and Burke are products of Loughborough, but the latter's ties with London Irish are particularly strong. Burke has come through the club's phenomenally successful junior section. It was started in 1979 with four boys. On Sunday mornings, more than 400 youngsters turn out in 11 age groups from seven to 17 and are trained by up to 100 Rugby Football Union qualified coaches. Burke joined as a life member at the age of six.
With Burke running the show then, the Irish scored 11 tries, Patrick Taylor, a useful flanker, getting five of them. Taylor, who has been playing for Richmond seconds, came on as a replacement midway through the first half and was so impressive the Irish are hoping he will join them. He is the son of Don Taylor, who refereed the match. It was that sort of day.
The loudest cheer of the afternoon was reserved for the Old Millhillians right wing Francesco Ferrari, who sprinted 70 yards for his side's only try and, in the process, made Gibson's horsepower look like something out of the Brighton rally. A long time ago, when he was 19, Gibson played full-back but grew out of it and moved to the pack. Old Millhillians could not compete with the power of the likes of Mat Keenan, the Western Samoan lock. The Exiles deny that Keenan's only Irish connection is that he was spotted quaffing pints of Guinness in a Dublin hotel during the World Cup.
London Irish: Tries Taylor 5, Sweeney 2, Burke 2, Reid, McFarland; Conversions Burke 4. Old Millhillians: Try Ferrari; Conversion Nelmes.
London Irish: M Gibson; P McGuinness, R Henderson, D Shelford, P Sweeney; P Burke, P Hughes; D Robson, J McFarland (capt), H Reid, M Keenan, B Maguire, M McCormick, J Fitzpatrick, N Lennon (P Taylor, 20).
Old Millhillians: D Fuller; S Nihat, C Vosper, J Pollock (M Brodie, 58), F Ferrari; R Nelmes, S Rogers; R Hartson, D Turner, D Penson (capt), C Liddington, M Mortimer, M Peskin, J Church, M Peskin.
Referee: D Taylor (London).Reuse content