London Irish take on Perpignan of France in a crucial Heineken Cup match in Reading today, flying the flag for everyone from the Thames Valley to Samoa, with the dear old Emerald Isle in between. The club's original raison d'être of providing a home to Irish ex-pats has largely gone by the board in the open era so now they share a dilemma common to every Premiership club. How many English players can they afford to bring through while chasing titles and trophies?
Their captain is Bob Casey, a big lock from Maynooth, County Kildare, an Irish rarity among the "Exiles", a nickname which has taken on new meaning in recent years. "It's a family club, very friendly, even if the players come from all over the world," Casey says. The team he has led to wins in Europe with maximum points at home to Treviso and away to Newport-Gwent Dragons includes Argentinians, Australians, South Africans and Samoans. Oh, and Englishmen.
It is a pressing issue since the recent eight-year agreement with the Rugby Football Union firmed up a commitment to produce England-qualified players. As football has found, it is legally problematic to set quotas. But a compensation scheme that could be summarised as "cash for Englishmen" will test the ability or willingness of clubs to develop and field English players.
A formula will be applied from 2009-10 under the control of Rob Andrew at the RFU. It is complicated but initially clubs who field an average of 14 or more England-qualified players in their Premiership squads of 22 (rising to a minimum 15 out of 22) will be compensated from a pot of 8 million. If the test was applied today, five of the 12 Premiership clubs would not qualify: Bristol, Gloucester, Leicester, Sale and Worcester. Thanks to the likes of Mike Catt and the more youthful Delon Armitage, Shane Geraghty, David Paice and Nick Kennedy, the London Irish are doing their bit for the English.
"We realise what constraints are put upon us and we adhere to them," says Casey, "but we have very much kept an Irish ethos around the club. We've got five Irish guys in the squad now, which isn't bad. In terms of the support at games there's very much an Irish feel, even if they're second or third generation. They just live the whole Irish thing, the craic, the music after the game and the Guinness."
Casey, 29, may yet succumb to the lure of an Irish RFU contract; that pressure plus competition from rival clubs has obliged London Irish to go for players such as goal-kicking Australian full-back Peter Hewat and Argentinian centre Gonzalo Tiesi.
At a good old-fashioned court session recently, the judge was Seilala Mapusua, son of Moto'otua, Samoa. But it was held at Sunbury, the training ground which also houses their amateurs. To prove the spirit has not died, they assumed the tradition of ex-pat rugby, stout and song.
London Irish v perpignanReuse content