England's leading clubs may not know who the hell they will be playing next season, thanks to the latest rampant outbreak of political squabbling over Europe, but the uncertainty has not stopped London Irish negotiating a bright new future for themselves. The Exiles, badly strapped for cash in recent seasons, are on the point of confirming a takeover by a consortium headed by an Irish businessman, Mick Crossan, who made his pile in recycling and waste management.
This seems entirely appropriate, and not simply because of Crossan's links to the island across the water. London Irish, coached by the former England attack strategist Brian Smith, are good at recycling possession but waste an awful lot of scoring opportunities; if they could just find a way of managing that part of their game, they would not be second from bottom in the Premiership for long.
Smith would argue, with some justification, that a rough run of results since the start of the campaign in September was the inevitable consequence of a haemorrhage of leading players.
Bath, who stripped Toby Booth and Neal Hatley out of the Exiles' coaching team last year, followed up by luring full-back Anthony Watson, centre Jonathan Joseph, utility forward Matt Garvey and flanker David Sisi down the M4, and with the Lions prop Alex Corbisiero joining Northampton and highly rated loose forward Jamie Gibson hotfooting it to Leicester, the squad went into the season badly understrength.
But things are looking up. Smith made a startling declaration of intent by signing James O'Connor – the frequently brilliant, occasionally wayward and bitterly frustrated Wallaby back – on a short-term deal, and has recently been focusing on possible recruits in Ireland, with the Ulster prop Tom Court already in the bag. In addition, Irish are six months away from moving into a £12m training complex close to their existing base in Sunbury-on-Thames, and once the new facility is up and running, money should start flowing into the playing budget.
Currently, the Exiles are owned by more than 800 shareholders, with a much smaller group of major investors holding a controlling interest. The new consortium is thought to have ambitious plans for the club – the first of which will surely be to prevent Marland Yarde, the England wing, from jumping ship at the end of the season.
On the far side of the Severn Bridge, thes summit meeting between the Welsh Rugby Union and its disaffected regional teams ended without resolution, although the Cardiff Blues chairman, Peter Thomas, said the dialogue would continue.
The four regions, fast losing their big-name players to lucrative contracts in England and France and deeply concerned by the ongoing Heineken Cup crisis, want stronger financial support from their governing body. Failure to negotiate such a satisfactory deal by the end of this month could lead them to break ranks with the WRU and strike a rebel accord with the English Premiership clubs, who are boycotting European competition next season and are therefore in need of fixtures.
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