There were moments at Franklin’s Gardens a fortnight ago when 13,000 befuddled members of the paying public found themselves lost in a time warp. Two things were happening and they were closely linked: Northampton, the home side, were frittering away a lead big enough to win the game twice over, largely because a former player of theirs, the outside-half Shane Geraghty, had somehow flicked a switch and transported everyone back to 2007 – an age of innocence before the fall, when the dynamism, ingenuity and confident sweep of his rugby marked him out as something very special indeed.
“That has to be one of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever played in,” says the London Irish midfielder, reflecting on a match the Exiles might have won, against mighty odds, but for a long injury hiatus that broke their momentum and gave the Midlanders precious minutes in which to draw breath.
“At 29-0 down it would have been so easy for us to give in and ship 50 points, but we were determined to keep playing and, although we didn’t quite make it, there was a reward of sorts. It told me a lot about the ambition of the people here. We want to be a top-end team, a team playing on the big European stage, and we want to get there quickly. I’m 27 now and I don’t want the years to slip away.”
You can see his point, for there has been too much slippage already. First selected for England, fresh out of his teens, by Brian Ashton during the 2007 Six Nations – he made his debut off the bench against France at Twickenham, cramming so much into the 22 minutes available to him that he finished the day as his country’s most talked about player – he quickly fell victim to the slings and arrows. The darker forces at Twickenham engineered Ashton’s downfall, thereby depriving Geraghty of the coach who best understood him; there were injuries and drop-offs in club form; there was an acrimonious move from London Irish to Northampton; there were public misfires on his return to the red-rose midfield in 2009.
All of which, added together, persuaded Geraghty to leave the country when his contract at Northampton expired in 2011. “I just felt that the way things had been going for me it was better to get away and try something new,” he says of his departure for the Limousin region of France. “Northampton had done a lot for me but I wasn’t desperate to stay in England. I wasn’t in the best of places, if I’m being frank. I’d had my ups and downs and felt, rightly or wrongly, that my reputation wasn’t great. Where better to rebuild your career than in the Top 14? So off I went to Brive, who offered me the clean break I believed I needed.
“It was an emotional time and I didn’t quite know what I’d taken on, but Jamie Noon [the England centre] was already at the club and I’ll always be grateful to him. He helped me settle in, showed me around the place and eased me into the lifestyle, which was completely different to anything I’d experienced.
“He was brilliant, a massive influence. I was injured for months, yet I was enjoying myself again. Mind you, that time with Brive had its downside: I’m a coffee addict now, to the extent that I’ve started a coffee club at London Irish. I’m doing my best to make everyone else addicted too.”
The sudden return to London Irish at the start of last season startled those who, recalling the manner of his leaving in 2009, assumed it was the last place on God’s rugby earth he would choose as his next port of call. The truth of the matter is he would not have recrossed the Channel for any other club. When he explains his reasoning, he does it rather poetically.
“I had a few options open to me, including sticking with Brive, who had been incredibly welcoming and supportive,” he says. “Then my agent told me London Irish were interested in me going back, which gave me a lot to think about, I can tell you.
“When I left in ’09 it wasn’t all my own doing, but the situation was pretty messy on the contract front and certain things were said. Was it an appropriate move, given what had happened? That’s what I had to work out and eventually I came round to feeling that here was a chance to rewrite an ending, to make things good between myself and the club.
“Time heals, I think. They say you end up back where you started, and the more I thought about that the more attractive the idea became.
“So here I am: it’s my second season back and I’m staying for another three at least. I like the feeling of familiarity – yes, I suppose I do feel I’ve come home – but there is something different and exciting about the place too.
“There’s a new consortium running the club and they’ve brought new money with them. There are new players heading our way and a new training complex being built. They were talking about that training base the last time I was here, but there are spades in the ground now. If you’re looking for hard evidence that progress is being made, there you have it.”
Having made his peace with the Exiles and made significant strides in rediscovering the best of himself, as that blinding performance at Northampton demonstrated, he would be less than human if he did not wonder whether he might be given the chance to deal with another itch badly in need of scratching.
Geraghty last played Test rugby for England in the autumn of 2009 – he toured Australia with the squad in 2010 but did not add to his half-dozen caps – and, as he confesses now, he sold himself short on the international stage. At 27, there is ample time for an Indian summer. Ask Paul Grayson, one of his predecessors at Northampton. He forced his way back into the reckoning at 31 and ended up with a World Cup winner’s medal.
Geraghty says he is not holding his breath for a recall, although he has spoken to Stuart Lancaster, the current England coach, and received a degree of encouragement. “He’s the type of bloke who takes you seriously if you show him that your intentions are good, that you’re doing things for the right reasons,” he says. “There’s a lot of competition out but if some 10s go down injured all of a sudden, I’ll probably give Stuart a ring and invite him out for one of those coffees I love so much.”
If his performance at Northampton was a reliable indicator of the rugby Geraghty will play next season, it may not come to that. Ashton, his philosopher king from national academy days, describes him as an “edge-of-the-seat player, a true creative spirit who is far more confrontational than he looks – an important factor in an age of extreme physicality”. The London Irish boss Brian Smith, who knows the outside-half as well as anyone, calls him “extraordinarily gifted and a man’s man – someone who has lost any ‘look at me’ streak he might have had and cares only about getting his team across the line, through force of character if necessary”.
Does Geraghty have regrets on the international front? “A few, I suppose,” he admits. “To this day, I’ve still played only 20-odd minutes of Test rugby as a No 10 – I was at inside centre for the rest of my Test career, such as it was. I didn’t show the best of what I can do when I had my chance in 2009. It just didn’t click for me and, looking back, everything was wrong: wrong time, wrong environment, wrong circumstances. I’d like to address that if I could. I’d like to recapture the feeling I had in 2007, when the environment felt exactly right.
“But it’s not all about regrets. More importantly, I feel happy in the here and now, playing for a club that means a lot to me. When all’s said and done, I don’t think you can ask for much more.”