By Damian Dolan
Nick Kennedy did his best to play down London Irish’s winning return to English rugby’s top flight – a thrilling 39-29 victory over old rivals Harlequins – but few Exiles supporters were interested in playing that game at Twickenham on Saturday.
After a year in the Championship this was a moment to savour.
Five points in the bag will make for a relaxed bus trip down to Sandy Park next weekend – the home of reigning Aviva Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs.
But Rob Baxter’s men will be smarting after going down at Gloucester, and the Exiles could face the backlash.
It will be huge test of London Irish’s Premiership credentials, but then so too was facing Quins at Twickenham.
The Exiles will again have nothing to lose, and that will make them a dangerous foe for the Chiefs.
While there is undeniably a long way to go and Kennedy’s caution is well founded, in one game and 80 minutes Irish achieved what it took Bristol’s star-studded side 11 attempts to achieve last season – win a premiership game of rugby.
London Welsh failed to win one all season in 2014/15, so Irish’s start is a massive confidence boost.
So while one swallow doesn’t make a summer, or a rugby season for that matter, the Exiles will be feeling a damn sight better about life and the task before them.
Sandy Park is the first of two tough away fixtures for the Exiles over the next two weekends, with a Friday night trip to Sale Sharks to follow, before Northampton Saints are the season’s first visitors to the Madejski Stadium.
Newcastle Falcons (away) and Leicester (home) come hot on their heels. The Premiership games come thick and fast during the opening six week block of matches, and the Exiles will be targeting at least one more victory.
Two wins from their opening six matches, and throw in a couple of bonus points, would be a very solid start to the campaign, given the Exiles only won four games when they were relegated in 2015/16.
“Overall I am very pleased with the performance but there is a lot to learn, some errors that cost us, so a lot to take away from that game,” said London Irish Director of Rugby Nick Kennedy.
“We’re not getting carried away. One game means nothing, we’ve got a lot to do to properly earn people’s respect.
“It was similar to our performances in the Championship, we were very physical and we showed a lot of desire; it was pleasing to get the result.
“I thought we made some big errors that really cost us and, whether we had won or lost this, it was a great game for us in terms of learning, moving forward and getting better.”
Tries from London Irish veteran Topsi Ojo and Tommy Bell saw the Exiles take an 18-3 lead over Quins, before Joe Marchant pulled one back.
Ofisa Treviranus crossed for Irish, but former Exile Marland Yarde and Danny Care kept Quins in the game.
There was a frantic finish as Charlie Walker’s try brought Harlequins to within three points, before Brendan McKibbin’s late try, as he capitalised on a Quins error, sealed an opening weekend win for Irish.
As well as scoring a try, Bell also kicked 19 points, while Harlequins were left rueing their ill-discipline as they twice had to play with only 14 players, with Demetri Catrakilis and Mike Brown shown yellow cards.
Irish had stand out performers all over the pitch with Bell contributing 24 points in all, but Kennedy singled out Blair Cowan, a driving force in the club’s Championship winning campaign, and touted him for a Scotland recall.
The flanker won the last of his 17 caps for Scotland against Wales in Cardiff in the 2016 Six Nations.
“He [Cowan] was brilliant in attack and defence, he’s one Scotland should be having a close look at,” said Kennedy.
“Blair made 14 tackles, but the average for him was 18 or 20 last year – for people who haven’t seen him for a year it’s like ‘wow, look at that’. For us that’s what he does every week.
“Not many coaches will select from that league (the championship) though, but just because you go down, your team has had a bad year, doesn’t make you a bad player.”