London Irish Rugby Union Club
The green shirts of London Irish are more than just a team strip: they are the symbol of a flourishing Anglo-Irish social scene, and the centrepiece of London’s Irish rugby-playing community. In the 21st century, the club’s professional status has finally overtaken its social reputation. The squad claimed the club’s first major trophy – the Powergen Cup – in 2002, and continues to compete in the highest league in the Rugby Union.
London Irish were formed in 1898 by a group of well-to-do London-based Irish rugby fans. The club followed the example of London Scottish and London Welsh rugby clubs by recruiting members both from the homeland and from London.
London Irish’s first game was played on 1st October 1898, when the new team won 8-3 against Hammersmith. Early success ensured they were soon invited to make fixtures against England’s more established rugby teams such as the Saracens and the London Wasps. The club’s first decades saw them grow gradually, notching up a decent number of wins each season. In 1911 they made their first overseas tour to France to play Le Havre.
However, history was soon to intervene. The Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland and the First World War impacted badly on the team, as they lost both men and morale during the conflicts. In 1923, after the end of the war and with the establishment of the Irish Free State, the task of repairing the squad began in earnest, and London Irish began to take on more fixtures.
The club grew in reputation, and in 1931 it purchased land at Sunbury-on-Thames, where a pitch was made ready by the end of the year. However, this was requisitioned by the Ministry of Agriculture shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939 to provide food for London. After the declaration of peace, the ground was so damaged that it was impossible to play, and the club moved temporarily to Sunbury Rectory Field in Blackheath.
Nine of the players who played for the club in the 1938/39 season lost their lives in the Second World War and others never returned to England. Two world wars and the troubles in Ireland had taken their toll on the team, and on the league, and a particularly harsh winter in 1947 led to the suspension of many matches. London Irish needed a new lease of life, and in 1948 they got it, with the recruitment of a number of new players including a new captain, Des O’Brien.
O’Brien led Irish through their most successful season to date, losing just nine games, winning 19 and drawing two. The club also made the decision to abandon the decimated Sunbury in favour of a ground-share with Blackheath at their Rectory Field playing ground.
By the beginning of the 1950s, the club was booming, with over six teams making for a busy social and sporting calendar, and an ‘academy’ to train schoolboys up for the game.
During the 1950s Rectory Field was also notable for playing host to a number of famous international teams on tour, who came for friendlies against the Exiles and Blackheath.
The team was starting to take shape, with home-grown talent bolstering well-known internationals such as Andrew Mulligan, Robin Thompson and AJ O’Reilly.
In 1959, a major fundraising effort meant the Irish were finally able to repair Sunbury and move back in. The reclamation of their own ground was to be a good omen, as their first full season there was the greatest in their history. London Irish lost just once, at the end of the season, in a match against Northampton that they could have called off.
1960s and 1970s
The 1960s were uneven times for London Irish. Despite assembling an impressive squad, and playing fixtures against the great clubs of English rugby, they did not take any trophies or pull off any major wins. The club’s sporting and social lives were celebrated, however, and this was the era of ‘Fitz’s Bar’, a legendary drinking establishment housed in an old wooden shed on the edge of the ground, and ruled over by the formidable landlord Fitzy.
London Irish were now regularly touring abroad between seasons, but the team needed to pull its standard up if it was to continue to compete with more professional opponents at home. In the 1970s, under new captain Ken Kennedy, Irish were to return to form. In 1976-77 the Rugby Football Union ‘professionalised’ its leagues and that first season London Irish finished highest in the London Division with six wins out of seven.
1980s and 1990s
In 1980, London Irish broke forward when they reached the final of the John Player Cup at Twickenham and finished top of the RFU Club Merit Table for London. However, they could not maintain this level of achievement throughout the decade.
The club continued to thrive socially, and a new pavilion at Sunbury was opened in 1986. But the rising demands of the game were exacting for first-team players, and the 1985-86 season saw pressure increase with the introduction of the John Smith’s Merit Tables in England. Despite the recruitment of a number of internationals, Irish failed to establish themselves in the new leagues and skulked around the bottom half of Division Two at the end of the 80s.
In 1990-91 the club was promoted to the First Division. However, the financial pressures that came hand in hand with improved fortunes soon became clear to London Irish, in common with many of the other English clubs of the period. Financial problems loomed over the club, and they struggled through the next few years.
However, when the RFU decided to formalise two national professional leagues in the 1995-6 season, London Irish were one of the first teams to sign up to this new era in the sport.
Professional to Present
The pressure had increased further still. At the beginning of this new era, London Irish seemed to be failing to overcome their problems and did not distinguish themselves in the league.
In the second half of the decade, the management decided to take action, and London Irish moved to a ground-share with Reading FC in the Madejski Stadium, Reading. The next year, London Irish merged with London Scottish and Richmond.
These measures seemed to have the desired impact. Two seasons later, the club won its first trophy, beating Northampton Saints in the Powergen Cup final at Twickenham. And in a 2006 match against London Wasps, London Irish recorded their highest-ever match attendance. In the 2006-7 season they continued on their upward trajectory when they made it to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup. With a better financial picture reducing some of the pressures the club is under, London Irish hope for more victories over the coming years.
- European Challenge Cup Runners-up 2006
- John Player Cup/Powergen Cup Champions: 2002
- John Player Cup/Powergen Cup Runners-up: 1980
- Biggest Win: 62-14 vs NEC Harlequins, 25 April 1998
- Worst Defeat: 16-64 vs Bath Rugby, 11 March 2000
- Most tries scored in a game: 8 vs NEC Harlequins, 25 April 1998
- Most tries conceded in a game: 9 vs Bath Rugby, 11 March 2000
- Top Try Scorer: Conor O’Shea (29 tries)
- Top Drop Goal Scorer: Barry Everitt (20 goals)
- Top Penalty Scorer: Barry Everitt (212 penalties)
- Top Points Scorer: Barry Everitt (865 points)
Online Box Office: http://www.london-irish.com/Tickets/
Telephone Box Office: Madejski Sales Centre – 0870 999 1871
Sales Centre: London Irish Scottish Richmond Ltd
There is a £1.50 surplus charge on bookings made by post or phone.
Fast, frequent trains to Reading run from London Paddington and London Waterloo, check out thetrainline.com for timetables. On match days, a shuttle bus service runs from Reading station to the stadium. More details, as well as maps, directions and parking information can be found on the club’s travel information page.
Address: London Irish Scottish Richmond Ltd The Avenue
Telephone (main switchboard): 01932 783 034
Sales Centre: 0870 999 1871
Mail Order: 0871 227 1898
Main Fax: 01932 784462
The club’s contact details page provides information for the stadium in Reading, as well as the club training ground in Middlesex and the individual staff offices.