Rugby Union: Golden and green look to Best's Exiles

With southern hemisphere imports at the heart of the former England coach's revolution at Sunbury, London Irish are bubbling again
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TO A certain section of the rugby community, the new London Irish is the sporting equivalent of a bad pint of Guinness. "The club is supposed to cater for all ex-pats in the capital, but it doesn't," moans Mick Doyle, man of Blackrock and a former green-shirted Five Nations warrior of considerable repute. "I would despise us becoming like Richmond or Harlequins, who have almost no home-grown players left," says Ken Kennedy, a tough nut of a Lions hooker who played much of his club rugby - and consumed much of his black stuff - on the emerald acres of Sunbury-on-Thames.

The Exiles can do nothing right, it seems. After years of soaking up stick from the Little Englanders - "Why do we let them play in our league when they contribute nothing to our national side?" - they are now catching it in the neck from their own, who complain that, in their present manifestation, they contribute even less to Ireland. And on the face of it, the critics have a case. Instead of Jeremy Davidson, Mark McCall, David Humphreys and Ken O'Connell, Irish internationals all, the Sunburyites have Ryan Strudwick, Brendan Venter, Steve Bachop and Rob Gallacher: two South Africans, one Western Samoan All Black and an Aussie. The only Cork among that lot is the one hanging from Mr Gallacher's hat.

Needless to say, it is not an argument that remotely impresses Dick Best. The Exiles' director of rugby is an old Harlequin of many years' standing, a former England coach and about as Irish as a cucumber sandwich. He is also one of rugby's most enthusiastic new age travellers, a hard-boiled pragmatist who recognises and revels in the realities of professional union.

Asked to carry out a root and branch reorganisation of the club's playing structure, he set about the task with customary ruthlessness; there would be no respect for tradition, no truck with nostalgia, no sentiment whatsoever.

And no regrets, either. "When the club told me to restructure," recalls Best, "I said: `Fine, but you should understand that the Irish Rugby Union is on the case and that you're going to lose a lot of personnel'. Basically, the Irish blackmailed their players into going back home. It was the old `Play here or we won't pick you' tactic and it meant that a whole recruitment link had effectively been severed.

"I had two choices: I could either attempt to pick up existing Premiership players who had fallen out of contract or I could go looking overseas. I opted for the latter."

Armed with what he describes as his "mental shopping list", Best marched boldly into the southern hemisphere market place and bought in bulk. Venter, the former Springbok centre from the high veld of the Free State and an "absolute phenomenon" in the considered opinion of the coach, was among the first to take the bait, followed by a stack of fellow Super 12ers: Simon Berridge, Jake Boer and Kevin Putt from South Africa, Jarrod Cunningham and Michael Howe from New Zealand. Best habitually describes these reinforcements as "the cavalry" or the "full metal jacket" and confidently expects them to establish London Irish as a genuine Premiership power.

That confidence appears well placed. Successive victories over Harlequins (sheer bliss for Best and his old coaching mucker, Andy Keast) and Richmond have given Conor O'Shea's side a threatening air and another two points against Newcastle, the inconsistent champions, at Sunbury this afternoon would send Irish into Tuesday night's crunch encounter at Northampton on a high of unprecedented altitude.

"It's a big period for us, certainly, but we're much better equipped to cope with the demands," says Best. "We could now put out a second team infinitely superior to anything available to us last season and that is indicative of the increased competition for places. Take Isaac Fea'unati, for instance. He was far and away our best forward last season, to the extent that we depended almost totally on his ability to carry the ball up. Now that the strength of the squad runs so much deeper, that dependency has gone. Isaac is a little low on confidence after recovering from a very bad knee injury, so we're not rushing him back. A year ago, we'd have played him on one leg.

"Most of the new players had never even heard of London Irish when the initial contact was made and they weren't at all convinced that we were as serious about our rugby as we claimed, but, once we started getting the odd signature on the odd contract, the recruitment process snowballed. Now I'd say I was 98 per-cent happy with what I have, although I'm very aware that the World Cup this autumn will be a watershed for a lot of southern hemisphere talent and that we'll have to keep pace with every other Premiership side by continuing to strengthen.

"What I'm not at all happy about is the absence of any interest from the England management. The Little Englanders probably don't know this, but there are 19 English-qualified players in the current squad. I don't get too many national selectors banging on my door and that amazes me; for starters, I can't believe there are many better loose-head props available to Clive Woodward than Neal Hatley."

Best will be pleasantly surprised if his side pitches permanent camp in the top four - "If you bring in 20 players, they take time to knit together" - and positively incandescent if they end up co-habiting with the relegation candidates. "We've planned for an honest mid-table position this season and we're pretty much on course," he says. "We're still missing the beat in too many games, but we've stopped falling apart in the last quarter through lack of fitness. No one, but no one, has thrashed us this season and I don't think anyone will, either. We're no soft touch. Not any more."