Delon's dazzle could make England smile

London Irish's back three have pace to burn and skill to thrill - which is lucky for Robinson
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The Independent Online

A good time to visit Sunbury, training base and spiritual home of the London Irish. The team are winning and sniffing silver-ware, and practice is carried out on the toes and with gusto. Delon Armitage, the young full-back of cosmopolitan extraction, is at the forefront of a host of new English talent, and if they don't have much to do with the shamrock and the shillelagh, who cares?

Armitage was born to an English father and a mother from Trinidad, and spent four of his formative years in the South of France. For a 22-year-old he has been around a bit, but right now his season is travelling very nicely: a dozen tries from full-back and scarcely a match missed.

There could be six more fixtures in an exciting run-in if Irish can win at Newcastle today to reach the European Challenge Cup final in May, and progress through the Guinness Premiership play-offs. "We've been used to the Leicesters and the Wasps getting all the coverage," Armitage says. "Now it's good to see London Irish in the press and on TV."

If by chance you have missed them, then you are in good company with some of the Premiership's most capable defenders. Irish's back three of Armitage, Topsy Ojo, 20, and the Samoan 23-year-old Sailosi Tagicakibau are possibly the fastest around. If one doesn't score, chances are one of the others will. "We're still kids," says Armitage. "We go to each other's houses and joke around, saying, 'This weekend let's try and run round him and do whatever'." It is back play with a smile, and they are mad for it at the Madejski Stadium, where atten-dances are averaging 10,000.

Irish are hardly accustomed to success - they have finished higher than seventh only once in their 12 seasons in the top division - and their current tilt at the title is as refreshing in its style as in its unpredictability.

The sea change came last year when the Australian director of rugby, Brian Smith, and former England international Mike Catt at inside-centre got hold of the backs. "Before," says Armitage, "we were pretty structured, it would be kicking to the corner or kick it up and it's 50-50 you'll get it back. Now we're told that if you want to have a go, do it, and just make sure you get the ball back. I feel comfortable on the field and the gaps have been opening up."

Armitage's mum, Verna, has Welsh heritage, and her three eldest boys were given Welsh names with a Caribbean twist: Bevon, Delon and Steffon. Then come Guy, who at 14 is about to join Irish's juniors, 10-year-old Joel and five-year-old Juanita.

There has been a fall-out between Steffon, a flanker, and his club Saracens, with the boys' father, John - who is also their agent - disgruntledly posting minute details of contract negotiations on a website message board. Delon seems to be a chip off the old block, willingly relating how he started in Irish's academy on £3,000 a year. "Go and spend that money within a week and then ring your parents up for more," he says with a grin.

Delon began in Richmond's minis and now, at 6ft 1in, is cocking a snook at those who dismissed him in his teens as being too small. He has not been to Trinidad for years but he will be supporting the football team when they play England in the World Cup. "It's on 16 June," he says in a flash. The following day is ringed in rugby red for the Churchill Cup final in Canada. It's England A, and Delon expects to be there. "I think I've been playing all right and I haven't seen many full-backs or wings that are around."

Indeed, with Josh Lewsey getting dropped by England during the Six Nations' Championship, and Ben Cohen finishing the tournament at full-back, there is an opportunity not so much knocking as hammering on Armitage's door. "When I've watched England play it's been frustrating," he says. "I'm thinking, 'Did you not see that chance, can you not get that pass away?' Obviously it's not easy and you can lose the plot. But I'd like to see England play a style like London Irish."

The public might say "aye" to that and Smith praises Armitage's vision and game understanding, areas in which young Englishmen are often criticised.

Irish also have the scrum-half Paul Hodgson, centre Nils Mordt, lock Nick Kennedy, prop Richard Skuse and hooker David Paice on the production line. Brian Ashton, without whom no coaching debate would be complete at the moment, lent them a hand in pre-season in his former role as National Academy director. Smith and Armitage are both fans of the man tipped to be England's new backs coach. Ashton's Bath, in turn, were shattered by thrilling tries from Ojo and Armitage at the Rec in February.

All things considered, England's future could be as bright as Delon Armitage's smile on a sunny Sunbury afternoon.

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