Sunday 1st April 2016: Madejski Stadium: Aviva Premiership Round 21: London Irish 25 Harlequins 32: Respective latest league positions – Harlequins 6th on 55 points, London Irish 12th on 20 points (relegated into the Championship).
I did not watch this Harlequins away match because firstly, I could not be bothered to drive down the M4 to Reading to be present in person and secondly, it was not featured as one of BT Sport’s chosen matches broadcast ‘live’ over the weekend. Instead I was reduced to keeping abreast of its progress by playing the live podcast commentary provided by BBC Radio Berkshire on my computer in the background whilst simultaneously watching soccer on Sky Sports on my television with the sound turned down. Accordingly, for those interested in a detailed report of what occurred, once again my readers must look elsewhere.
The impression I gained was that it was a typical Quins 2015/2016 effort. They stunned Irish (who had to win the match to retain any chance of escaping the drop) with a blitz of three tries – a brace by Charlie Walker and then one by Ross Chisholm – in a fifteen-minute first half period but then contrived to let the hosts back into the contest. With twenty minutes to go the score was 25-25 and (having notched three tries themselves) Irish seemed to have gained the momentum to win and thereby survive to fight another day. It could so easily have gone either way but somehow – it was difficult to put a finger on the reason listening to the radio – Quins got their act together and at the death had secured a four-try bonus point victory.
[Spoiler warning – what follows is more about London Irish than Harlequins].
Irish are relegated at last – and I must take care with my comments because many of my friends are die-hard supporters of the club that left its soul at Sunbury when it switched to playing its home matches at the ground of Reading FC in 2000, after a season playing them at the Stoop at the conclusion of which it came to perhaps short-sighted metaphorical blows with its arch derby-rival and temporary landlord (Quins).
I’ve long held the view that one way forward for English Premiership rugby clubs was potentially to form ground-sharing partnerships with well-funded Championship soccer clubs who own or control their own stadia – but only when rugby has become 25% more popular than it is presently.
There is little more dispiriting than playing a team sport in a half (or two-thirds) empty stadium and that is what London Irish have been doing for the past five seasons. In these circumstances such atmosphere and passion as can be aroused, whilst potentially sincere, naturally tends to be half-hearted.
Over the years I must have seen ten or twelve Harlequins matches at the Madejski, all of them forgettable and most of them spent as a ‘tolerated’ guest of a party of Irish fans from west London who then (like me) gained most of their enjoyment of the expedition in one or another countryside ‘real ale’ pub at which we had stopped off en route for lunch on the way down.
In concept London Irish – in common with London Scottish, London Welsh and sundry other ‘exile’ formerly-amateur rugby union clubs – is a bit of an anachronism in the modern world.
Simply by their name and tradition they attract both Irish supporters and players but, inevitably in these hard-nosed professional days, in the latter case almost by chance. In the modern age the old-style ‘one club’ men are a rarity because of the simple fact that you (and indeed your club employer) are only as good as the length of contract you hold and – as long as Pacific Islander and other overseas mercenaries are widely regarded in rugby’s first two tiers as a ‘quick fix’ route to winning, prospering or even avoiding relegation – ‘loyalty’, even that borne of ancestry and heritage, is in short supply.
Thus, in London Irish’s case, the uncommitted onlooker is faced with the strangeness of a ground that on any given day is less than a third full, the home fan proportion of which – though perhaps full of Guinness beer, bedecked in replica shirts and/or sporting ginger wigs under Leprechaun hats, banging on Irish drums, accompanied on the pitch by an Irish wolfhound mascot and a PA announcer bellowing “Come on you Oirishhhhh!” in encouragement – all of this whilst quite possibly supporting a match-day 23 entirely devoid of Irish blood.
You could argue that this is as inevitable phenomenon as rugby following the historic path of elite UK soccer, in which not a single fan – well perhaps unless he or she follows Glasgow Rangers or Celtic – provided his club is winning of course, cares a fig about the origins of any of its playing staff.
That said, and here I’m talking as a fan of the oval ball game, in the context of ‘exile’ rugby clubs it still seems a tad incongruous.
I bow to nobody in my love of the Irish people, whose uniform relaxed and fun-loving approach to life is deeply infectious. I’ve spent some of my most memorable ‘Harlequins on tour’ experiences in the company of London Irish fans who have come along for the ride at the drop of a hat when their club has failed to reach the latter stages of a cup competition.
The other side of the coin of Irishness is the inherent gallows humour. Season after season the London Irish fans I spend time with with have been resigned to them under-performing and occupying the lower reaches of the Premiership, expecting relegation every year.
And now it has happened.
About eighteen months ago there was an injection of new blood and money at the helm of the club, leading to buoyant talk that 2015/2016 would be the year they at last ‘turned the corner’. Instead, they’re heading for the Championship and – if my pals are any yardstick by which to judge – given the growing competitiveness of the Championship, their fans are already preparing themselves for the prospect that they may never return to the top-flight by shaking their heads with gritted-teeth half-smiles and confidently predicting disaster.
Since time immemorial, and especially since the acrimonious break-up of our ground-share at the Stoop, the derby clashes between Quins and Irish have had the most special atmosphere of any games I attend. Next season they’ll be much missed in the Premiership and I mean it sincerely when I offer the hope that they’ll bounce straight back from this devastating outcome.