By Sean Moriarty
London Irish scrum-half Tomas O’Leary is calling on the Irish community in London to get behind his team.
The club, once the only club that Irish emigrants in the British capital, has ambitions to become wholly Irish again and the double Heineken Cup winner , (with Munster) believes, with the support of the local community, can be case again.
Although London Irish plays its home games at Reading’s Madjeski stadium, it has just moved into brand-new state of art centre of excellence in Sunbruy, less than three miles from Twickenham, the home of rugby.
This move was made possible by a consortium of Irish businessmen, led by Powerday’s Mick Crossan and are further signs that the club wants to return to its Irish roots.
O’Leary accepts there are many challenges facing the club before this dream becomes a reality but it is step in the right direction.
Other positives include the management promise of more Irish players coming on the books.
Names like Conor Gilsenan, Eamonn Sheridan, Eoin Griffin, Jamie Hagan and even Shane Gearaghty whose father is from Mayo feature regularly in the first 15 alongside O’Leary.
He told The Irish World. “Hopefully we will get more lads over, it is a great place to live and a great club,”
This will, of course, build the local Irish in the club, but he concedes that success on the pitch is the key to getting fans to the stadium.
“It is a catch 22. It is up to us as players to create a bit of a buzz, to get a bit of momentum on the pitch and play a good brand of rugby. I think if we can start doing that and create a bit of success and start pushing for success, then, hopefully people will see it as more of an attractive proposition, and come and support us and watch us.”
There are other factors the need to be taken into account. The club’s traditions, that stretch back as far as 1898, was always about Irish emigrants, a home away from home for Exiled Irishman and women who were passionate about the game. Since 1921 it has been based in Sunbury on Thames in the western suburbs of the city but all of its home matches are played 80 miles further west along the M4. It resulted in falling support from the London Irish community and (and as a result of fewer Irish players on the book) the insulting Plastic Paddy moniker.
With the advent of social media and budget airlines, new arrivals to London tend to stay in touch with their home club, the success and size of the Munster Rugby Supporters Club London branch is testament to this, and makes them slow to adopt a club in their adopted city.
He added: “If I am from Cork and Kerry or wherever I am coming over to London Munster is still going to be my team. Maybe if London Irish were going well and the fans get out to a few games, then, maybe they might suddenly start taking more of an interest in the team. Hopefully they will start supporting us too. It would be brilliant to see more Irish young lads who are working here, the new generation of Irish who have just landed, come out and see what it is all about. Maybe in five or six year’s time when we are playing Munster of Leinster in a European final they might have a decision to make. That would be the dream anyway.”
For Irish people living in London, and thinking about getting behind London Irish the club’s opening Aviva Premiership game is a London derby against Harlequins at Twickenham Stadium on September 4. Irish beat them at home last season but lost the away fixture.
O’Leary added: “There a real feel good factor in the club at the moment, a lot of new players in, everyone is looking forward to the season, everyone is hoping that we can get a decent start. It is a tough fixture list but our pre-season has gone well so fingers crossed our first game against Quinns. It has been pretty close between us for the last few times. We don’t have any fears about it, local rivalry, it will be an exciting game, they have been a regular top four side and regular quarter finalists. We are going to know straight away where we are from in terms of performance level. We are going to be able to see are we up to them or not. It will be a good indication of where we are going to be.”
O’Leary, is in his third year of a three year deal at London Irish and, for now his position as number-one choice scrum-half is safe.
However he could face opposition from the club’s latest signing, Samoan, Scott Steele, who joined from Leicester in early summer and wasted no time in securing O’Leary’s number nine jersey for the club’s pre-season friendly victory over French side Montpellier. The Cork man remains unfazed about the prospect.
He said: “You need three scrum-halves at every club who can do a job and play at the top level. I am used to that all through my career, it is not like I had a clean run at things during my career with Peter Stringer or Colin Murray [Munster] It is part and parcel of any top club, you need two or three top players in any club in every position. I would love to be first choice, by a mile, but that is not the way things are so it means that I have to but my head down and train my arse off. Some teams can swap and put in a second team [from the subs’ bench]as good as the first. It just pushes players to train harder and to be at the top of their game, it is part of Rugby.”
Next Friday night (August 29) London Irish travel to Waterford to face O’Leary’s former Munster squad in another pre-season friendly.
It marks an opportunity for the hurling fan an opportunity to catch up with former club mates and visit the family home near Glounthane in East Cork where his father Sean , a former Cork inter-county hurler lives.
It has been a long-standing tradition that Munster and London Irish play a pre-season match in Ireland and this is the fifth time O’Leary has been involved in such a fixture.
He added: “We have played in Cork the last two years so I have played against the lads before, and I have played London Irish when I was part of the Munster squad. There is no viciousness, it is pre-season game and a bit of craic. The Munster team has changed so much that it is unrecognisable from when I was there but I would know 80 per cent of the squad well. It is good craic and a chance to have a chat with the lads afterwards.”