Rugby Union: Exiles face serious examination

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The Independent Online
Not so very long ago the green-shirted Exiles of London Irish lived, breathed and more or less epitomised the carefree philosophy of rugby famously followed by their countrymen across the water in the Emerald Isle. "There may be a crisis but it's not serious," they would say after their umpteenth straight defeat. "Now, where's the barman?"

Times have changed, to be sure. The Irish face Sale today in a "must win" Allied Dunbar Premiership match at Sunbury, and if late August seems ludicrously early to be attaching such importance to a bread-and-butter fixture like this, the mood in the camp suggests otherwise. Not serious? Conor O'Shea and company are deadly serious.

Only a few weeks ago London Irish were a second-class side-issue in a world dominated by rugby's new mega-rich main attractions. To be a contender in the professional age a club needed financial clout as well as the more traditional physical variety, and while the Irish possessed plenty of hard forwards, they had no hard cash. Indeed, they announced losses of almost pounds 500,000 for the 1996-97 season.

Enter Geoff Read, Maurice O'Connell, John O'Neill and John Stacpoole, leading lights in the consortium behind London Irish Holdings Ltd, which now effectively runs the club on an interim basis. Their fund-raising subscription rescue package stands at more than pounds 2.6m and counting - the offer will probably close over the next week or so - and as a result the club is back in business. Read, who chairs the holding company, is now talking in terms of a public flotation and big-name signings from the southern hemisphere, not just hand-to-mouth survival.

"The subscription offer was a starting point aimed at underpinning the financial stability of the club in the short to medium term," he said this week. "There will be a meeting soon to determine who should sit on the new board, but the consortium members are keen to take an active role in driving the club forwards.

"I take the view that we should be more cosmopolitan; we should retain our Irishness, but not to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. We need bigger gates and you get those through big names and winning rugby."

Which brings us back to today's game with Sale. Willie Anderson, the director of rugby at Sunbury, may now have the money to dabble meaningfully in the marketplace, but for the time being he must squeeze the best from an existing squad that is undeniably lightweight. If he fails - if the Irish find they cannot capitalise on home advantage against middling outfits like Sale - the eagerly awaited high-profile transfer activity may not happen quickly enough.

Meanwhile, two of English rugby's top-of-the-bill acts make a belated first Premiership appearance after being confined to the wings last weekend. Wasps, the champions, visit Bristol without Simon Shaw; the Lions lock, signed from the West Countrymen during the summer recess, is still a yard short of match fitness. Leicester, on the other hand, are in a position to unveil the majestic Fijian Waisale Serevi against Gloucester at Welford Road. "Serevi is a rugby genius and he will not be restricted," Bob Dwyer, the Tigers coach, said yesterday.

Bath, who have confirmed their decision to impose a three-week ban and an unspecified fine on Nathan Thomas, the Wales international loose forward sent off for kicking during last week's opener against Newcastle, travel to Harlequins without the services of two-thirds of their England midfield axis. Jeremy Guscott does not expect to play before the middle of September after breaking his arm on Lions duty while Mike Catt withdrew yesterday with groin trouble. Richard Butland plays at outside-half, with the brilliant youngster Matthew Perry at centre.