Rugby Union: Irish doing their Best for England

Significantly, the Exiles' director of rugby has more contact with Clive Woodward than with Warren Gatland
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The Independent Online
DICK BEST leans back in his chair, places a large foot on his desk and lights up a B & H. Behind him a poster reads: "You don't have to be Irish to enjoy the craic." Indeed not. At London Irish, the craic, a Gaelic form of waxing lyrical while burning the candle at both ends, has never been better.

The Exiles are on not so much as a roll as a baguette filled with smoked salmon and Dublin Bay prawns. Actually less of the Dublin Bay, more the universe, for the world, it seems, is Best's oyster. London Irish, who play Gloucester at Sunbury today, have won 10 of their last 11 matches which has them challenging for the Premiership and the Tetley's Bitter Cup. "We are in uncharted waters," Best said.

At the end of last season the Irish were in a familiar predicament, up to their necks in high water. They managed to survive the play-offs against Rotherham after which 26 players left the club. Some, like David Humphreys, were enticed back to Ireland when the IRFU put 120 players under contract.

"Our normal supply line was cut off," Best said, "so we had to look elsewhere." He fished in the waters of the southern hemisphere. "Of course we wanted good players but we also wanted good blokes. There was no room for egos. They had to know where I was coming from and they had to understand the Irish philosophy of the club. I was selling a concept."

The old concept had been semi-professional. Suddenly, Irish men from all over the world got out their chequebooks, 400 of them became shareholders and a board of directors was formed. Overnight the term Exiles took on a new meaning. And all this to coincide with the club's centenary.

But is it truly London Irish? "There were rumblings," Best admitted. "After we'd lost a home game against Sale I received a very rude fax from a prominent member and that hurt. Since then I've received a pleasant fax from the same man."

During the recruitment drive, Best was careful about passport control. Although the squad is studded with South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders, the director of rugby points out that 19 of his players are qualified to play for England, nine for Ireland, two for Western Samoa, one for South Africa, one for Holland and one for Wales.

Typical of the genre is the stand-off Stephen Bachop who is bringing out the best in the threequarter line and, in particular, the Irish back three, the captain Conor O'Shea and the wings Niall Woods and Justin Bishop. Bachop has played for the All Blacks and Samoa and has a French passport.

Most, though, hold British passports and it is significant that Best has more contact with Clive Woodward, the England coach, than with Ireland's Warren Gatland. The centre Nick Burrows (born in Chester, played in South Africa), the outstanding loose head prop Neal Hatley (born in Chorley, played in South Africa) and the hooker Richard Kirke (born in New Zealand, played in New Zealand) were last week called into the England A squad. Another player who might interest Woodward is the full-back Jarrod Cunningham, a New Zealander whose mother is English. He is being kept out of the All Blacks side by Christian Cullen and Glen Osborne, but England are not as well endowed.

"England are in a similar position to 1991 when the World Cup was looming," Best said. "I think they will have a very good Five Nations. They have an excellent pack although the backs have yet to play to their full potential." Woodward and Best were once team-mates at Harlequins; Woodward was once the coach at London Irish, Best the coach of England. His international record was played 17, won 13, lost 2 and those defeats were by a point. Then in August 1994 the RFU sacked him. "A man came round to my house one Sunday and I knew there was something wrong when he couldn't look me in the eye. He said `I'm sorry' and I told him not to say anything else."

Best went to Quins and saved them from relegation. The following season they were third and in Europe and a year after that they were third again. And then they sacked him. The day before an industrial tribunal hearing, Quins settled. One of the conditions was Best's silence on the affair although it is no secret that Will Carling was involved.

Best - he is still a vice- president of Quins - lives in Twickenham and last week he discovered that the former England captain, who has announced his return to Quins, has moved to... Twickenham. Mention Carling's name and Best's response is: "No comment. The first call I received was from my solicitor telling me to engage my brain before opening my mouth."

Sounds like the sort of solicitor who should have known Glenn Hoddle. "I feel sorry for Hoddle," Best said. "Sometimes you are asked questions about other things and you should have the experience to avoid them. I know what it's like to be sacked."

When London Irish made their move, Best had been coaching in South Africa and they only got him because he was at home for three weeks looking after the kids. He was employed as a consultant for three months. But after the Irish avoided relegation they asked him to implement a three-year plan. "The first stage was to get out of the basement and gain some respect," Best said. "Year two was to finish in the top four and year three was to win something." He is more than two years ahead of schedule.

On a foul day in October, the Exiles were driven off Sunbury by Northampton's pack; on 2 January London Irish completed the double over Newcastle with what Best described as the "full metal jacket"; on 5 January they made eight changes and ran Northampton, who had been beating everybody, off Franklin's Gardens with Woods scoring four tries. They also put in nearly 200 tackles which is a phenomenal rate. Last Saturday they returned to Northampton to knock Saints out of the Cup. How can this be?

"Confidence," Best replied. "It builds and builds and builds. I'm not saying they think they're invincible but there's a fantastic belief and an almighty resolve, especially in defence. A lot of these boys have never been to places like Northampton or Bath and there's no fear, no emotional baggage. They have still found the Premiership a higher standard than they anticipated. There is also the work ethic. I don't think I've ever worked with a more dedicated group. Because we've got a new team we've had to work doubly hard. The hard yards are being put in on the training field."

And the police gym where circuit training involves hammering punchbags or the Coral Reef at Camberley, a pool where they engage in aquatic exercises that relate to rugby. "In professional sport you should always be looking for an edge," Best said. Thus last week he visited Paul Richards, a London optician who is looking into methods of improving the perception and vision of sports people. Hand and eye co-ordination, for example.

Meanwhile, the Exiles' eyes are smiling. Support is growing (tickets sold in London pubs with names like Murphy's, Kavanagh's, O'Grady's and Molly Malones), merchandise is walking out of the club's shop and when the Irish beat Quins in December they sold 12,000 pints of Guinness, their sponsor's product. That's a stout effort even by Irish standards. All they need now is an end to the political shenanigans that threaten the future of the game (Best's solution is a Kissinger-like figure to run the whole shooting match) and a new ground. Denied planning permission, Sunbury cannot cope with the influx.

"This place has gone mad," Best said. "The crowd are now into this and their support is a godsend. They were always the poor relations but they've got their self-esteem back. People are stopping me in the street and shaking my hand. Normally the supermarket run is an hour. Now it takes two." The London exile feels at home. After all, you don't have to be Irish to enjoy the craic.

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