Blair Cowan on the Exiles’ top four aspirations, Challenge Cup hopes, early morning wake ups and why he’s not a London Irish legend (yet)
By Damian Dolan
There’s no escaping the early morning wake ups when you’ve a young baby in the house, even if you have tackled yourself to a standstill the day before.
Babies are just no respecters of record equalling exploits.
Blair Cowan put in an extraordinary 34 tackles in London Irish’s 20-17 win over Worcester Warriors – but was still up at the crack of dawn the next morning to tend to his two-month-old son Eli.
“Waking up after a game is a bit different these days,” Cowan tells the Irish World. “You get up a bit earlier, you’re straight on baby duty and you’ve just got to crack on.”
Cowan was already in a good place with his rugby, loving it more than ever in the last few seasons and seeing it “in a different light”, as the flanker approaches the “back end” of his playing career.
But the arrival of Eli has given him “a bit more of an incentive”.
“It’s changed my whole headspace; he’s at the top of everything for me,” said Cowan, who turns 35 on 21 April.
“I want him to look back and be proud of what his dad did. He’s definitely a big motivator for me when I go out there.”
That can only be good news for London Irish, as Declan Kidney’s side target a top four Premiership finish for the first time since 2008-09, when the Exiles came third only to lose out to Leicester Tigers in the final.
A place in the play-offs would be a remarkable achievement for a club relegated twice from the Premiership in recent seasons.
But looking too far ahead is a “dangerous trap” says Cowan, especially as Irish are a side still trying to find its feet back at this level.
“We still have to look week to week and put everything into our performance, as we have been, and we’ve been picking up our wins,” he said.
For Cowan, Exeter and Bristol are the only two clubs who’ve earnt the right to put their focus on the top four.
“We haven’t earnt that right yet,” he states.
A more “realistic goal” for Cowan is top six and Champions Cup rugby, but if they keep winning then the play-offs is certainly within the “realms of possibility”.
“Hopefully we do get to the point we’re a top four team and we’re ‘going for top four’, but that takes a period of time and you’ve got to earn that right,” Cowan adds.
They’re still fighting on two fronts, of course, and the Challenge Cup offers perhaps a more achievable route to a first piece of top-flight silverware since the club’s 2002 Powergen Cup success.
The Exiles have been drawn against Cardiff Blues in the ‘Last 16’ on 2 April. Come through that, and they’ll then face an away quarter-final against the winners of Bath and Zebre.
“I’m going to put it out there, we are going for it,” says Cowan emphatically. “But we know the size of the challenge and it’s going to be really hard and it’s going to take a lot of work.
“It’s a bit different to looking at top four, because so much has to happen to get into it. The Challenge Cup is knock out rugby – win four games and you’ve got yourself some silverware.”
The New Zealand-born flanker, with the surfer-like locks, is fast becoming a legend at the club – if he isn’t already.
His wholehearted approach to the game, every time he pulls on a London Irish jersey, has long since endeared him to the club’s supporters.
But the man himself, as he edges nearer his 150th game for Irish, baulks at the idea of being placed alongside the likes of Conor O’Shea, Topsy Ojo, Bob Casey, Dec Danaher, Justin Bishop and David Paice, or even the late Gary Halpin.
“If people put me in that bracket, then that’s very kind of them, but I’m very far away from those legends. I’ve got a look of work to do before I get close to them,” he says.
“I had the honour of playing with Dec Danaher, David Paice and Topsy Ojo, and that was a big part of my emotional attachment. They looked after me from day one.”
Emotional attachment is a big thing for Cowan, who earned his stripes with Cornish Pirates in English rugby’s second-tier before securing a move to Worcester in January 2012.
It’s what helps him deliver when he goes out on to the pitch. For Cowan, that “emotional driver” was “really easy” for him to find when he signed for London Irish for the 2013/14 campaign.
“They backed me; I was struggling to get game time in the Premiership (at Worcester) when I turned up here,” he says.
“They saw something in me; they saw me as the starting seven and they wanted to develop my game. That gave me confidence and trust in the club.”
That love-in has grown over the ensuing years, which have twice seen him suffer relegation from the Premiership with the Exiles, only to both times help the club win promotion out of the Championship at the first attempt, and back to the Premiership “where the club belongs”.
Speaking after the win over Worcester, at the end of which Cowan had to be hauled off after cramping up having once again given his all, Declan Kidney said his performance showed what the club meant to him.
“I love the club; it’s given me the opportunity to play international rugby – he’s been capped 18 times by Scotland between 2014 and 2020 – it’s given me and my family the opportunity to be in a good position – not just financially, but to travel and see London,” explains Cowan.
“My heart’s always going to be at this club, no matter where I go in the future. I’ll always associate my rugby with London Irish.
“When young boys ask me why I play the way I do, it’s emotional attachment. I feel I’m letting myself down if I don’t perform or put in the work I should.
“I feel guilty if I let the club down, and the likes of Mick [Crossan], Dec [Declan Kidney] and all the other boys, and all the boys I’d previously played with who are legends at this club.”
London Irish supporters might disagree with Cowan’s assessment of his own standing, especially after his exploits against Worcester, which saw the Exiles produce a brilliant defensive display before Paddy Jackson stepped up to land a 61-yard penalty to win it.
Afterwards, Cowan managed to catch the latter stages of Ireland’s Six Nations clash with Scotland – Ireland snatching it thanks to Johnny Sexton’s late penalty from the left-hand touchline.
For Cowan, it was impossible not to draw comparisons between the two Irish fly halves.
“I looked at Paddy and said ‘what do you wanna do? You got this?’ And he said ‘yep, I got this’,” recalls Cowan of Jackson’s match-winning moment against Worcester.
“There was no doubt in his voice. I thought he was going to point to the corner. I knew then he was going to crash this. I was like ‘sweet’.
“And then the way he struck it, and it just soared, it was never missing from the moment it left the tee.”
Irish, not for the first time in recent weeks, showed that they have character a plenty within their ranks – the late win over Worcester coming on the back of gutsy efforts against Bristol and Wasps. Not that Irish want to keep going back to that well.
“We don’t want to rely on it, because as much as there’s a definitely a buzz, it takes years off your life when you’re doing it week in, week out,” says Cowan.
“We want to get in a position where we take control of the game earlier and we keep the pedal down through to the end.
“That’s the only way we’re going to progress to the top four, that we don’t get ourselves in those situations on a regular basis.”
That the team has not been found wanting in the character stakes should come as no surprise, though, with the wily Declan Kidney at the helm.
“He thinks about the man before he thinks about the player. If everything’s right off the field, the player’s going to be more valuable on the field,” said Cowan.
“When he speaks, on the field, it’s only if it needs to be said. That carries more weight than him talking more often. He picks and chooses his moments.”
All that was missing from Irish’s late heroics against Worcester at the splendid Brentford Community Stadium ground was a home crowd to share that winning moment with.
These are still strange times. The club’s famed St Patrick’s Party game, versus Bath on 27 March, will played be behind closed doors.
Contracted up until the end of the 2021/22 season, Cowan is eagerly anticipating the day when fans are allowed back into stadia in their droves.
Up to 10,000 fans could be back in stadiums by mid-May as part of the government’s plans to move England out of lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in February.
Too late for the forthcoming games against Bath and Cardiff Blues, which would have been “epic” events for the supporters.
“I think everyone’s getting hungry for that. London Irish delivering on the field at the moment is definitely helping to build a buzz,” said Cowan.
“We can’t wait for the supporters to come. We see the opportunities to create an atmosphere, and get amongst the supporters and the pubs around Brentford.”
The thought of Champions Cup rugby next year and drawing the likes of Munster or Leinster, would be “bonkers”, he adds.
These are certainly exciting times for London Irish. There is much to relish now, but perhaps even more to look forward to, led on the pitch by an exciting crop of youngsters.
The Premiership has been lit up by the likes of Ben Loader, Ollie Hassell-Collins, Ben Donnell, Theo Brophy Clews, Jack Cooke, Matt Williams and Tom Parton, who recently penned a new deal with the club.
“All these boys might not have got as much game time if we were in the Premiership, but they were allowed to take their shackles off and express themselves in the Championship. Now, they’re our stars,” says Cowan.
A homegrown “core” of players is essential to long lasting success, he stresses. Their emergence and their performances in the Premiership excite Cowan about the club’s future.
“We’re starting to build, not just through external talent, but we’re developing within the club,” he says.
“The really exciting part is that some of those boys have ten or 12 years left in their careers, if they look after themselves and they stay with this club and build their journey together.
“The skies the limit for themselves individually; international caps as well as silverware for London Irish.
“It’s going to take time, but we’re taking the right steps already.”
Cowan adds: “As players, if we keep delivering on the field it’s only going to grow. The support base is only going to get bigger, and London Irish is only going to be a more exciting machine going forwards.”
For Cowan, leaving London Irish in a better place than when Brian Smith brought him to the club in 2013, is what drives him on.
“You’re only ever a custodian of the jersey,” he points out.
Success may prove to be a little further down the line – the journey for this London Irish is only really just beginning – but for Cowan it will be enough for the history books to record that he was part of that journey.
They most certainly will.