The former Leinster centre who’s found a home from home at London Irish
By Damian Dolan
Don’t tell Brendan Macken that the ‘Irish’ is going out of London Irish. Once the first, and only, choice for aspiring rugby players crossing the sea, professionalism has muddied the waters and challenged that nostalgic view.
Macken, who came through the Leinster Academy and played Ireland Under 20, is having none of it though.
Linked with a possible move to Leicester Tigers in the summer, Macken instead chose the Championship and the chance to play for London Irish.
“I’ve always wanted to play for London Irish,” Macken told the Irish World. “When the opportunity came up it was a no-brainer.
“It’s always a club that you keep an eye on when you’re playing back home because they are the Irish Exiles. That’s how the club was set up all those years ago.
“I thought it would be quite cool to play for the team which is affiliated with my country of birth.
“You always remember your roots and where you came from. When I come in [to training] in the morning, it’s got céad míle fáilte. It’s got that touch of home – it’s almost a home away from home.”
The chance to work with Declan Kidney and Les Kiss was another big pull. Macken had previously crossed paths with both during his time at Leinster, when Kidney was Ireland coach.
He recalls been called into the “odd session here and there when I was a young lad” by Kidney, while Kiss took a couple of defensive sessions at Leinster.
Since then, they’re two coaches he’s “always wanted to work with” and he got the chance in the summer when Irish drafted Macken in for the club’s push for promotion back to the Premiership.
“Declan’s a very intelligent man and we’re very lucky to have him. He knows how to win games,” said Macken, who joined Irish after three seasons at Wasps.
“It wasn’t a big decision at all. I wasn’t looking at things short-term – I was looking at the bigger picture. It’s a project and the club is definitely going in the right direction.”
A late addition to the Exiles’ squad, he had to bide his time for his chance, such is the competition for places in the Irish midfield, with Fergus Mulchrone, Bryce Campbell (USA) and Ciaran Hearne (Canada), Tom Stephenson, Tom Fowlie and new addition Terence Hepetema.
Having sat out the Exiles’ opening round wins over Ealing Trailfinders and Nottingham, he made his debut in the home win over Bedford Blues.
The following week it was Macken’s stunning late try which gave Irish victory at Coventry. He added another in a commanding win over London Scottish at the Athletics Ground.
“So far it’s been good and the results have gone on our way. We’re eight [wins] from nine.
“It was disappointing to lose to Jersey, but now is when it’s going to heat up. We’ve got Hartpury before the end of the year and then we’re into league games in the New Year.
“That’s when the important games are going to come.”
January brings crucial league clashes with Richmond, Nottingham and Jersey – the latter should need little selling to London Irish supporters, or the team’s players.
The return to a ‘first past the post’ promotion system has certainly added a new lease of life to the Championship.
That early November defeat in Jersey has allowed closest rivals Ealing Trailfinders to move to within four points of the Exiles, and that’s far too close for comfort for Irish’s liking.
When the league reconvenes, Irish travel to Hartpury on 28 December for a fixture which has now taken on even greater significance in the wake of that Jersey loss – St Peter again proving an unhappy hunting ground for the Exiles.
If Jersey cranked up the pressure on Irish a notch or two, Macken isn’t showing it.
“There was obviously a huge feeling of disappointment [after Jersey]. The guys are itching to get it right collectively and personally,” he said.
“We just need to focus on us and not worry about who’s second or who’s third, and make sure we keep winning. The rest will take care of itself.”
So far this season, emphatic Irish wins have been mixed with some far tighter victories than many would have liked. Macken, though, is confident that there’s much more to come from this Exiles team.
“I think we’re only scratching the surface of what we’re capable of. We’ve gotten better and better as the season’s gone on,” he said.
“We’ve honed in on a few bits and pieces that we’ve had to make right and I don’t think we’re far away.”
A product of Blackrock College, Macken was picked up by the Leinster Academy. He made his Leinster debut against Glasgow in April 2010, fresh from having helped Ireland to Under 20s Six Nations success.
The likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Fergus McFadden blocked his path, but Macken was still able to rack up 46 appearances for the province, scoring six tries.
“The structure in Ireland’s quite good when the internationals don’t play all the games. The guys who play for England, like Elliott Daly, could go 12 or 13 games in a row. Whereas in Ireland they’re going to get looked after a bit more. So there was still opportunities to play.
“You see all the young guys in Leinster come through and that’s because there’s times in the international window where they get to play. If you take the opportunities, you’ll get more.”
He ended the 2014/15 season on loan at Gloucester and that whet his appetite for a permanent move to the Premiership.
A switch to Dai Young’s Wasps for the start of the following campaign ended five years with Leinster where he’d played under Joe Schmidt, Michael Cheika and Matt O’Connor. An impressive list.
Leaving Ireland was a big decision, but one he felt he had to make.
“I had to go, to grow as a player and a person as well. It’s quite easy to stay in your home town club, at home surrounded by your family and friends,” he said.
“But I always wanted to leave Dublin. I never thought I’d play for Leinster for my whole career.
“It was difficult leaving family and friends, and the club you’ve supported when you were a young lad, but I had the opportunity of coming over to the Premiership, which is such a brilliant league. It certainly helped me grow as a player.
“I’ve always liked the Premiership and I’d always wanted to give it a crack.”
His three years at Wasps would encompass the club’s controversial but ambitious move from Twyford Avenue in Acton, West London, to Coventry and the Ricoh Arena.
On the pitch, Dai Young’s side twice reached the Premiership semi-finals, and the final in 2017, only to lose out to Exeter Chiefs. Jimmy Gopperth and England’s Elliott Daly would provide fierce competition in the centres, but Macken still managed to get game time.
“I enjoyed it up there. Last year I probably had my best year at the club, I played 16 or 17 times,” he said.
“It’s a good club; I was lucky enough to play with Willie Le Roux, George Smith and Charles Piutau – they’re some pretty special players.
“Dai Young was really good, I had a good relationship with him. He knows the brand of rugby he wants to play and he’s good at getting that out of his players.”
Combined, Macken made 20 appearances in the Premiership for Wasps and Gloucester, as well as gaining Champions Cup experience. The goal now is to add to that Premiership tally next season, with London Irish.
“It’s absolutely massive and please God we will get back there next year,” he said.
“A club like London Irish, that’s where they belong, in the top flight of English rugby.”