By Damian Dolan
London Irish technical director Declan Kidney says the Exiles must embrace the “target on their back” if the club is to win promotion back to the Guinness Premiership at the first attempt.
Relegated to the Greene King IPA Championship, after just one season in the top flight, the Exiles begin their quest for an immediate return against Ealing Trailfinders at Vallis Way on Saturday evening.
“If we have a target on our back that means we’re going well, because every team is trying to beat us. We have to use that to our advantage to try and make ourselves better,” Kidney told the Irish World.
“If we don’t have a target on our back then it means we haven’t been doing our job.
“It’s a double-edged sword. You want to have that target on your back – but at the same time when it is there you know you have to front up every single time.”
He may have enjoyed Grand Slam success with Ireland and won two European Cups at Munster, but Kidney admits he’ll be “leaning” on those with previous experience of English rugby’s second tier, such as attack coach Declan Danaher.
Irish also have plenty of survivors on the playing front from the side’s Championship winning campaign in 2016/17.
For Kidney, the names of some of those players plying their trade in the Championship is enough to demand respect for the league.
He added: “It’s a very competitive league and if you don’t pay teams the proper respect and get yourself right, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get out of this league this year.”
They’ll be no side more intent on challenging Irish, than Ealing Trailfinders. The ambitious west London outfit, coached by former Exiles hooker James Buckland, are likely to be Irish’s biggest threat having recruited heavily for the second consecutive season.
Ealing reached the play-off semi-finals in 2016/17 and finished second to Bristol last season, albeit 20 points behind them.
Bristol were happy to get out of Vallis Way with a one-point win and Irish can expect a similarly torrid and testing 80 minutes.
For Kidney, that one result is an indicator as to the size of the challenge before the Exiles.
But the Championship is littered with pitfalls other than Ealing. Jersey, the only side to take Irish’s scalp in 2016/17, also inflicted the only defeat on Bristol during their march back to the Premiership.
If Irish can emerge unscathed on Saturday it will be the perfect early confidence booster they need, as well as serving to send out a loud and clear message to their rivals.
“We have to regain that winning feeling. When you’re relegated obviously you don’t have that, so we must try and regain it as early as we can. But that won’t be so easy,” said Kidney.
However, Kidney will balance that need for results with making the players “as good as they can be”.
He added: “If we’re anyway close to that, results will look after themselves. If you just go on results, you can lose the run of yourself.
“A good start would be a massive help to that, but it’s a 22 game league. It’s easier to go to work after any win, but if you get the first result it gives you a leg up.”
Starting well is therefore a must. Irish will not want to show any signs of weakness or any hint of a hangover from a Premiership campaign where losing became an unwanted habit.
“We need to pull up our socks from that,” admitted Kidney.
The untimely words of Mark McCafferty will have done the Exiles no favours. The Premiership Rugby CEO questioned whether Ealing has the set-up, both on and off the pitch, to grace the Premiership. Their average attendance is less than 1,000.
Comments Buckland is sure to use to fire up his players.
The need for a fast-start is heightened by the scrapping of the play-offs in favour of a ‘first past the post’ system.
The team that finishes top of the pile after 22 games goes up, meaning the Exiles will have to hit the ground running. The “little bit of leeway” offered by the play-offs has gone.
“It’s a different type of pressure; it puts the pressure on at the start of the season. The top four put the pressure on at the end of the season,” said Kidney.
If Irish don’t get the start they would like, one senses, however, that they’ll be no hitting of the panic button by Kidney – if he’s feeling any pressure, he’s certainly not showing it.
As one might expect from a man who has grappled with bigger fish than the Championship during his time with both Ireland and Munster.
While relegation prompted the departure of players such as Johnny Williams, Kidney is “delighted” with the “strong squad” at his disposal. It’s a squad full of “good people”, as well as Championship experience.
“Good people make good players; the one thing that you can’t coach is attitude. You can coach fitness and skills, but peoples’ attitude towards their job is something they must bring to the table themselves,” he said.
“If you get good people like that, usually they have a good work ethic about them. And if you have that you can always make strides.”
Pre-season, which saw Kidney take his Irish side to Munster and Leicester Tigers, has seen the players and coaches working hard on a plan they “feel comfortable” with and can “go out and execute”.
Saturday will provide the first competitive opportunity to put that into practice, as Irish take the first step on the road back.