Behind the scenes at the amateur wing of London Irish rugby club

Behind the scenes at the amateur wing of London Irish rugby club

James Martin goes behind the scenes for a training session with the amateur wing of Britain’s best known Irish rugby club

AFTER a decade away from frontline rugby you’d expect to be forgiven for thinking Burpees was something only babies did.

It’s certainly not something I expected to hear barked at more than 30 men sat squat under bright floodlights on a training pitch in south west London.

It’s a cold Tuesday night and I’m being put through my paces with the London Irish Wild Geese. This is where the amateur wing of London Irish Rugby Club plies their trade once the pros have gone home for the day.

The recently-opened development packs down among the tree-lined Croysdale Avenue in Sunbury-on-Thames. We’re only a spiral punt away from the club’s original Sunbury HQ, where London Irish first called home in 1931. The Twickenham postcode underscores the fact we’re in the country’s rugby heartland.

Sheets of hard driving sideways rain blitz one of a row of five new pitches outside the fresh brickwork of the club’s new base in Hazelwood. And Burpees aside, this re-introduction to the sport is proving difficult. Agonising squat-thrusts, explosive leaps, press-ups, sprints to the half-way line.

Tom Eastwood, the Strength and Conditioning coach, leads the warm-up which continues for what feels like half of the 90-minute session.

This was always going to be something of a challenge. It’s been over a decade since I’d last donned the scrum cap for my catholic school’s sixth form in New Malden, south-west London. Fearful memories of regular hammerings by selective and specialist rugby-playing schools still endure to this day.

My 6ft 5in frame is an ideal shape for a second row apparently, but unfortunately the sprout upwards was never complemented by any great bulk outwards. So the sport of gentlemen was shelved.

The remainder of training gets even harder with few let ups in intensity.

SET is the loud cry from a line of bodies who hold tackle bags and have to shadow their opposing numbers closely. Defensive coaches film the tackles in order to correct techniques in later sessions. Soon after, intricate moves of a dizzying complexity are drilled into onrushing attackers. Moves with names like one-two switches, zip and hammer runs and crash balls all cause confusion in defence.

It breeds an intensity that barely lets up during game of touch that brings training to a close. But for many first and second-generation Irish players — plus locals from the area’s wide catchment area including St Mary’s University in nearby Strawberry Hill — who are serious about their rugby, it’s the place to come.

After the session, I catch up with Simon Martinson who is Chair of Adult Rugby.

“You were fine,” he says reassuringly. “It takes a bit of getting used to and all of the guys would know the moves. It’s not easy for anyone to come down and jump straight into it.”

A Tipperary man who left Ireland 30 years ago, he jokes how he was nearly tempted back into playing when he saw the first team’s pitch, directly in front of the clubhouse. The show pitch has a glass-thin, snooker-like green carpet.

Search the other side of the grounds and an impressive new gym sparkles and includes a team-long row of squat machines, weights and spinning sessions. Casting the eye back along the 63-acre site and you hit row after row of white posts and paint marked pitches — including a fenced-off 4G pitch.

Even in tonight’s stormy conditions, you can almost make out another huge area with more pitches called The Paddock. That’s where the next crop of Ojos and Armitages are being developed. Mini rugby caters for ages 6 through to Under 12s, with three sides at each group level. Meanwhile youth sides run from under 13 to under 18. Cleary it’s no problem to accommodate four playing adult sides along with a veteran’s side called The Bs.

Simon joined the club seven years ago as Team Manager. Speaking of the club’s recent move, he says: “It’s gone down well with the squad. Like any new place, there was a few teething problems but we’ve seemed to iron everything out.

“The spirit in the side — and right throughout the club — is great at the moment. Look at the numbers on such a miserable night.”

As well as support from dedicated physios on training sessions, such as tonight, the club maintains strong links with Ireland.

“We do everything possible for them,” said Simon, who adds that four recent arrivals have settled and one is working with him in the offices of 3D Personnel — one of the club’s sponsors.

Mick Crossan, who recently took the reins of the club, through his firm Powerday, has a policy of investment from the ground up, according to Simon.

“Eddie Fraher, the club’s skipper, has got another lad work,” he says. “Between us we’ve about half a dozen lads who are involved in recruitment throughout the club.”

So do they actively look in Ireland for players? “We don’t actively look, but we go over there at the start of every season.”

But where? The last few years there have been pre-season jaunts to Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Such trips help to put the club’s name out there.

It’s a formula that seems to be working. The first XV — The Wild Geese — in particular have enjoyed rich rewards in recent years since they took the London Division 2 South West title and lifted the Surrey Cup in 2010.

Even if they were demoted from National League 2 South last season — considered to be the highest level the club could realistically go as an amateur outfit — they currently ride high in National League 3 South-East in the same division they took the title from in 2012/13. Few would bet against them making a quick return to rugby’s fifth tier in the English Divisions.

Simon adds that once newcomers sign up and pay their £175 subs, they get full kit and transportation to and from all fixtures. Last weekend the Geese flew over to Guernsey. Not to mention food twice a week after training. And sure enough, tonight’s gruelling session had raised a few appetites.

After steaming hot showers in new changing rooms, it’s on to the bar and kitchen area where some of the old memorabilia has made the journey up the road, including a large black and white framed portrait of the old days which hangs next to the bar. There, bar manager Yvonne Smith shares a joke with one of the players, arguing over precisely what time they finally left the bar the previous Saturday night.

In the kitchen Yvonne serves up a huge slab of chicken breast with curry, rice and salad. Back at the bar Trevor Johnson, one of the club’s rugby managers who runs the Wanderers squads, says that for three years he has made regular drives up the M3 from his home on the Hampshire and Wiltshire borders and into Hazelwood.

“It’s a long way to come but I absolutely love it,” says Trevor, adding with a smile: “You’re going to feel it tomorrow alright.”

Around a table, Cork man Jerry Cronin is sat with Liam Prescott, a second-generation Irishman based in nearby Brentford.

Perhaps in line with an increasingly professional outlook, most comers order up blackcurrant squashes. A change in the old philosophy?

“Maybe back in Sunbury we’d have had some pints—”

“The days when we were in London 2,” a voice calls across the table.

However, much of the old London Irish spirit remains alive today. Prescott, his face screwed in mock frustration over his curry, recalls the lack of peace on a trip back from a recent away win.

“It’s was like karaoke on the Geese bus. They never stopped singing the whole way back.”

For more information contact Simon Martinson at [email protected]