Whatever else London Irish may fear as they continue their journey into the Heineken Cup unknown with a first semi-final next Saturday, it will not be fear itself. "I love rugby," said Steffon Armitage, the Exiles' openside flanker. "Knowing I can take the hit, soak it up and always come back for more. And I love golf too." But there's not much physical contact in golf, Steffon? "Look at it from the ball's point of view," he said.
As one of five rugby-playing brothers, Armitage has been soaking it up and coming back for more almost from the cradle. There's Bevon, 25, Delon, 24, Steffon, 22, Guy, 16, and the youngest, Joel, 12.
"We're all completely different in style and shape," Steffon said. "Delon has gas, he's got the vision. Bevon's just a headcase and likes the big hits. Guy's laidback, he thinks he's on the beach. Joel is a prop who loves scoring tries. And me, I just love to get stamped on."
When Steffon – whose playing idol is Wales's Martyn Williams – describes the essence of a good openside flanker as "being in the right place at the right time", he ought to know. None of the brothers, who have a seven-year-old kid sister Juanita, would be playing the game had it not been for a chance meeting between John Armitage and their mum Verna in her native Trinidad. "I was on holiday and at the carnival in San Fernando," John said. "I met Verna as she was coming out of the loo. We got married three months later."
John played rugby for Bishop's Stortford colts and Hatfield –"I brought the passion but not the skill" – and the three eldest brothers, who became his step-sons, started out at Sudbury Court in north London and Richmond. Then it was on to Racing Rugby Club de Nice when a job in IT took their father to France for six years from 1996.
It makes the semi-final with Toulouse at Twickenham something of a reunion as Bevon, Delon and Steffon often played against the French aristos at youth level for Nice.
"I got offered to go to Toulouse but I chose the beach," Steffon said, while John recalled:"There was a fight every match from Under-13s upwards. It toughened the boys up."
Delon, a free-running centre/ wing/full-back who is also at London Irish, has earned England Saxons honours in each of the past three years, but a broken metatarsal in the quarter-final win over Perpignan has ended his season. Bevon has just signed for Doncaster from Esher to play full-time, and he would have been turning out for Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifier today but for a knee injury. Guy, a centre like Bevon, is an England Under-16 A cap in London Irish's academy.
And Joel has been propping for Brixham Under-13s since the family moved to Devon, where John runs a travel company, Detour Safaris.
Steffon joined London Irish from Saracens – who take on Munster in the other semi-final in Coventry next Sunday – in 2006. John was unhappy with what Saracens were paying his son, and to prove it he posted every detail on to a supporters' message board. But Steffon's recent form needs no elaboration. He is cutting a different figure to the one in the family photo having shed 13kg in the past two months on a fitness programme laid down by Allan Ryan, the Exiles' strength and conditioning coach. It began at a seven-day mid-season "boot camp" in Wexford ordered by the head coach, Brian Smith.
"I was 105kg [16st 8lb] when I was at Saracens and getting around the field OK, but I realised that if I wanted any chances of playing for England I had to sort myself out," Steffon said. "I'm on the exercise bike twice a day, and watching what I eat. Now I'm playing 80 minutes every week, I'm getting quicker, I can handle the game better."
He may even develop the six-pack which will win a bet with London Irish's scrum-half, Peter Richards, who along with Shane Geraghty has recently returned from injury with what looks to be very handy timing for the Irish. "Delon tells me off every now and again, but that's what brothers are for," said Steffon. "A hug from him before a game and I'm ready to go."Reuse content