Anyone seen on a bus after the age of 30 has been a failure in life.
So said the Duchess of Westminster many moons ago, and while there was just a whiff of something snooty in her pronouncement, it still makes uncomfortable reading for those veteran London Irish players who can expect to leave on the No 18 to Nowheresville if results do not improve over the next few weeks. The Exiles are on a nine-match losing streak stretching back to Bonfire Night, and as there is every prospect of their season continuing to go up in smoke at Saracens tomorrow, the sense of anxiety is acute.
"I've always been a glass half-full sort," says Toby Booth, the head coach, "but if you're asking me how I feel right now, I have to admit that I've slept less over the last month than I've ever slept. I suppose I've showed my soul a little bit in my dealings with the players just recently, but that's because I care and I want them to know that I care. I'm employed to do a job here, but there's more to it than that. Ultimately, this team is a reflection of what I stand for in terms of rugby – it represents my concept of how I believe the game should be played – and that's something that goes beyond a simple job description."
When Booth fielded weakened sides in two low-key Anglo-Welsh Cup matches in early November – "People needed some respite," he explains, succinctly and unapologetically – no one much cared when both games were lost. But the alarm bells have been ringing ever louder since then, thanks to two defeats in the Heineken Cup and five in the Premiership, including last weekend's profoundly frustrating setback against Bath, who finished a distant second in the try-count but nailed a penalty with the last kick of the game to sneak home by a point.
On the face of it, the facts of the matter are grim. No Premiership team has gone so long without victory since Rotherham, hopelessly out of their depth at the elite level, finished second 18 times on the bounce either side of Christmas in 2003. Needless to say, they were relegated. Harlequins found themselves on a nine-match barren run the following season before finding succour in a drawn Heineken Cup game with the French club Castres, while Worcester might easily have suffered on a London Irish scale last spring had they not run out of matches to lose.
Apart from these isolated examples, comparisons are hard to find, generally because teams poor enough to perform this badly invariably find themselves in the European Challenge Cup, where they have a decent chance of facing an Italian, Romanian or Spanish side even worse than them. And there's the rub for London Irish. As a top-end Premiership side with problems – for all their current travails, they are still fifth in the table – rather than a bottom-end side living down to expectations, Europe offers no respite. Two of their recent defeats were at the hands of Toulon, probably the wealthiest club in the northern hemisphere.
"We don't have the biggest squad, as everyone knows, so when you're struggling for results and find yourselves facing our sport's equivalent of Manchester City...well, it certainly makes life interesting," says Booth, who, like several of his fellow Premiership coaches, might cast an envious glance towards those currently involved in the second-tier Challenge Cup. "It's obvious that the French, in particular, are bringing a tremendous amount of financial muscle to bear on the Heineken Cup this season," he continues. "Some of those clubs over there have a playing budget of £20m. We have a salary cap of £4m. The politics of that is another story for another day, but it's true to say that the demands on us have been relentless."
Not that Booth uses this monetary imbalance as an excuse. As befits a coach of his calibre – and by common consent, he is placed high among the brightest young rugby strategists in the country – he is far more interested in looking within. The defeats by Toulon hurt, but London Irish were at least competitive in both games. The Premiership reverse at Northampton at the end of November, followed by the home loss to Leicester a week later, were different. Indeed, they shook him badly enough to leave him questioning both his own standards and those of his key personnel.
"We were found out at the set-piece on both occasions and we made too many really poor decisions when we did win ourselves some ball," he admits. "Those performances were so far short of what we're about as a team that I had no choice but to be brutally honest, both with myself and with the players. It was a matter of reminding ourselves who we were and what we stood for, and those conversations are always hard. It's a 'support and challenge' situation. Call it tough love, if you like.
"It's been extremely difficult for all of us, and a lot of it comes down on the leading players. Paul Hodgson [the occasional England scrum-half] has been outstanding in his response. So has Clarke Dermody [the All Black prop and Exiles captain]. It's asking a lot of him to carry the mantle because our set-piece work has been a part of the problem, but he's been tremendous.
"These are the people you need at times like this. It's not about the bloke who shouts the loudest or the guy who throws the miracle pass a couple of times a season. It's about the man who says: 'Instead of making 10 tackles today, I'll make 12; instead of clearing 15 rucks, I'll clear 20.' It's a matter of honesty, in the end. Results don't lie and we all know where we stand. We have to look at ourselves and ask if what we're doing is good enough. If it is, we stay. If it isn't, we don't."
Last week's defeat by Bath may have been hard to stomach, but London Irish showed enough to suggest that things are on the turn. "If the nuts and bolts of our game had come loose as they did against Northampton and Leicester, I'd be saying: 'Jesus, what's going on here?'" Booth commented. "But that wasn't the case. We lost for different reasons, reasons that were less worrying, if more frustrating. Certainly, I'm a little happier with life now than I was a month ago.
"When people ask me whether I'm feeling heat from the board, I can only say that they've been very supportive. They want to know what I'm doing and why, which is perfectly justifiable, given that they're the ones putting the money in, but I think there's a general acknowledgement that we're moving in the right direction again. What pleases me most is that there has been no sense of fracture among the playing group.
"Many a squad would have broken by now, have split apart under the strain. There are always factions in any dressing room: the idea that everyone loves everyone else all of the time is an illusion. But I can honestly say that in terms of collective effort and commitment, the players have been brilliant. Some of them have even come to me and said: 'Toby, is everything alright with the people upstairs?' That kind of thing counts for a lot. It means I can still walk down the road with the people I'm managing, still go for a drink with them even though things are rough. We're all in this together."
Somehow, that last comment seemed more persuasive coming from Booth than it does from the Prime Minister.Reuse content