Exiles take the Best route to prosperity

London Irish director of rugby relishes task of turning a much-changed squad of varying reputations into a feared and respected union outfit.
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The Independent Online

The Clive Woodwards and Ian McGeechans of this world will tell you that successful rugby sides are, like successful marriages, constructed on the twin bedrocks of faith and understanding. Raw talent is a crucial element, of course, but so too are blood-brotherhood and telepathic familiarity, all the "people things" that make 15 hulking great athletes act and think as one. In which case, it is difficult to understand how London Irish ever win a match, let alone kick the swish, swanky and extremely expensive derriÿres of a team like Saracens, as they did six days ago.

The Clive Woodwards and Ian McGeechans of this world will tell you that successful rugby sides are, like successful marriages, constructed on the twin bedrocks of faith and understanding. Raw talent is a crucial element, of course, but so too are blood-brotherhood and telepathic familiarity, all the "people things" that make 15 hulking great athletes act and think as one. In which case, it is difficult to understand how London Irish ever win a match, let alone kick the swish, swanky and extremely expensive derriÿres of a team like Saracens, as they did six days ago.

Dick Best, two and a half years into his job as the Exiles' director of rugby and loving every second of it, openly admits to some very serious flaws in the green-shirted philosophy. He has a first XV who barely know each other from Adam - there are 18 new players on the Irish books this season, and the last of them, the North Harbour and New Zealand A lock Jeff Fahrenson, will not arrive from Auckland until the middle of next week - and he agrees it will be "some little while" before his charges use the word "gel" in relation to anything other than the hair-styling products in their kitbags.

And anyway, Best himself does not have the foggiest as to what might eventually emerge as his strongest line-up. "Basically, I don't really know what I've got here," he acknowledges. "Paul Sackey, who scored an unbelievable try against Saracens last Saturday and won everyone's vote as man of the match, only played because Nnamdi Ezulike injured himself in midweek. I suspect there are guys on the sidelines who are better than those currently in the team, but people put in a lot of effort last season and deserve the opportunity to defend their places. The next few weeks will be extremely interesting from the selection point of view."

Things are interesting, full stop. Not only do the Exiles have a new squad - of the current first team, only Conor O'Shea, Justin Bishop and Kieron Dawson, the three Irish internationals, were at the club when Best materialised out of the south-west London gloaming in the spring of 1998 - but a new home, the Madejski Stadium in Reading. All changed, changed utterly, as the poet said. Or as Best puts it, rather more prosaically: "Nothing stays the same for long around here."

If Carwyn James remains the patron saint of coaches, Best is the Grand Inquisitor of the profession. He brooks no flannel, entertains no excuses and tells it how it is, generally to people's faces while staring them straight in the eyes and smiling at them with the kind of death's head grin that Torquemada reserved for the very worst kind of heretic. The stories of his upsetting entire squads in the space of a single sentence are legion, and there were suspicions that the departures of no fewer than 19 players during the off-season were, at least in part, the result of his kick-arse approach to management. Not so, according to the man himself.

"People left for all sorts of reasons," he explains. "Some, like Jake Boer and Robert Todd, went for money; Mark Gabey, a big loss, went to Bath because his wife wanted to continue living in the West Country; Kevin Putt and Steve Bachop, two major contributors, had done their bit by taking us to mid-table security, but were well into their 30s and not the sorts I felt able to offer two-year deals with an option on top. It was time to look for new people, and I had to look abroad as well as in Britain.

"It's all very well for someone like Dean Richards to get on my back about signing overseas players, but where the hell else was I going to get a squad? There is only a finite number of Englishmen capable of doing the business at Premiership level and the big boys, the Leicesters and Baths, have a substantial proportion of them under lock and key on long contracts. Until now, I haven't been in a position to offer anything like those terms.

"With professional rugby as unstable as it was and people losing millions of pounds, the London Irish board were not prepared to offer players the earth, and I can't say I blamed them. People like Boer and Todd came here, prospered as players and, as soon as they were out of contract, their agents said: 'More money elsewhere, ta-ta.' As a result, I've repeatedly found myself starting over."

Best's willingness to cover the map in search of Premiership talent has earned him the services of a Fijian centre in Tabai Matson, a New Zealand utility back in Jason Wright, a Welsh international lock in Steve Williams and an Irish Test flanker in Eddie Halvey. He has also signed a variety of wannabes, has-beens and never-wozzers to help keep body and soul together through what will be another interminable campaign. And in stitching together this coat of many colours, he will fall back on his honest journeymen professionals, the likes of Ryan Strudwick up front and Jarrod Cunningham outside the pack.

"Ryan and Jarrod? I love 'em to bits. They know the ropes, they understand what is required. The Premiership is a pretty unforgiving competition: my board aren't interested in a team that gels, they're interested in a team that wins, so the challenge is to get people performing, and quickly. People like Strudwick and Cunningham are central to that, because they've developed their own code of conduct. They take the newcomers to one side and say: 'Look, it's like this. If you don't cut it, Besty will start asking questions, not just of you but of all of us. And that is something we can well do without'."

So the fear factor still operates, then? Best replies: "There's a fear factor for all of us, isn't there? I'm under the cosh too, you know. Now that I'm bringing in players on longer, better contracts, I have to be damned sure they're the right people. And then there's the move to Reading, which means we really have to start earning our corn. In the old cosy days at Sunbury, it didn't matter whether the team won by 10 or lost by 50. Someone would always buy the players a drink, everyone would always have a hell of a night out. Even when we ground-shared with Harlequins last season, it was only a couple of miles along the road. With the Madejski, we're 40 miles away and in an entirely different situation. We need to build something new there, and that demands success both on and off the pitch."

They could hardly have made a better fist of their Reading curtain-raiser, defeating a Saracens side dripping Castaignÿdes and Brackens like Liz Taylor drips jewellery. "Sure, there was a 'how on earth do we beat this lot' feeling at the start of last week," Best confessed, "but once I started thinking about the strategy of the thing, the ideas soon flowed. While we're not yet among the élite - to be there, we have to qualify for the Heineken Cup - we've earned some respect over the last couple of seasons. People know now that, to beat us, they'll have to be fit, they'll have to run and tackle for the full 80, that if they're a notch down they'll suffer. But at the same time, last week was last week. This week is about Bristol on Sunday.

"And if we don't win there, how far along the road will the Saracens game have taken us? Not an inch, in my view. That's the reality of professional sport, and we need to get used to it."

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