By Alan Callanan
London Irish flanker Conor Gilsenan is confident that the club can avoid the pitfall of relegation this time around, but a fast start is going to be essential to the Exiles’ survival hopes.
The Mullingar, Co Westmeath, back row forward is well placed to offer an assessment of the Exiles’ Gallagher Premiership credentials.
Since joining the Exiles from Leinster in 2014, Gilsenan has experienced the highs of two winning Championship campaigns, and the bitter taste of twice being relegated back down to English rugby’s second-tier.
“What has probably cost us in the past was maybe making a slow start. We need to start fast this year and hope these guys bring a lot of value,” Gilsenan told the Irish World.
“It’s about not getting flustered on the big stage.”
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for the affable former Ireland U21 player, who has racked up more than 60 appearances in a London Irish jersey.
His consistent performances in the Exiles’ back row and his leadership qualities, both on and off the pitch, saw him rewarded with a contract extension in May.
Gilsenan is confident that after a strong summer in preseason the club is well-equipped for the challenges that lie ahead.
“It’s been brilliant,” said Gilsenan, who joined the Leinster Academy straight from attending
Clongowes Wood College, in Kildare, and captained Ireland at Under 18, Under 19 and Under 20 level.
“Obviously it’s been a very long pre-season, but the coaches have managed it really. I don’t think there is any worry of burnout or guys being overly fatigued or jaded.
“By and large it’s been a really well thought-out programme delivered to us in a really good fashion.”
London’s opening four Gallagher Premiership Fixtures
Rnd 1 – Sunday 20th October
Wasps v London Irish
Ricoh Arena, 3pm
Rnd 2 – Saturday 26th October
London Irish v Sale
Madejski Stadium, 3pm
Rnd 3 – Saturday 2nd November
Saracens v London Irish
Allianz Park, 3pm
Rnd 4 – Sunday 10th November
London Irish v Leicester
Madejski Stadium, 2:30pm
This club’s summer additions are another cause of optimism for Gilsenan.
It’s a list headed by 2015 All Black World Cup winner Waisake Naholo, Australian scrum-half general Nick Phipps, Scotland front-rower Allan Dell and former Ireland and Ulster fly half Paddy Jackson.
The club has certainly been busy during the off-season and while some of those new faces won’t join up with London Irish until after the World Cup, in addition to the recovering Sean O’Brien, these are exciting times to be an Exiles player, and supporter.
And that’s not even to mention the move back to West London next year.
“The signings are obviously going to be a crucial part to it,” said Gilsenan, who played Gaelic Football for Mullingar Shamrocks and was good enough to attract the attention of Westmeath Minors, before being selected to play for Ireland U18.
“We have a new set of coaches, a lot of new faces and a good plan, so it’s exciting. We are feeling pretty optimistic.”
The Exiles opened their 2019/20 campaign with a 49-29 win away to Gloucester in the Premiership Cup – Gilseman scoring one of the Exiles’ seven tries.
Due to the Ruby World Cup in Japan, the Premiership Cup dominates the opening four weekends of the new season, before the real business gets underway for Irish on 20 October when the Exiles visit the Ricoh Arena to take on Wasps in the league.
London Irish players selected for the World Cup
Motu Matu’u (Samoa)
TJ Ioane (Samoa)
Bryce Campbell (USA)
Alivereti Veitokani (Fiji)
Allan Dell (Scotland)
Steve Mafi (Tonga)
Adam Coleman (Australia)
Sekope Kepu (Australia)
Irish’s next three cup games against Harlequins (28 September), Bristol (6 October) and Sale (12 October), are a pivotal few weeks in which for Declan Kidney and Les Kiss to iron out any wrinkles, before Wasps and the serious stuff begins in earnest.
And they have to do it without 12 of their squad, who are currently involved in rugby’s biggest competition. Kidney knows they’ll be extremely lucky if all of them return unscathed, and ready to hit the ground running in the Premiership.
Prior to last weekend’s bonus-point win at Gloucester, the Exiles suffered a disappointing result at Musgrave Park in Cork in their one and only pre-season friendly, as Munster ran out comfortable winners.
After a tightly contested first half, a crowd of over 5,000 fans were treated to a delightful second-half performance by the hosts, who went on to win by 45-5.
They bounced back last weekend at Kingsholm, though, and are back in cup action at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday (3pm) when the face old rivals Harlequins.