London Irish will return to the Premiership next season bristling with confidence. And the Hazelwood men have been busy in the transfer market building a new squad fit to compete.
These are exciting times for the club. And Declan Kidney, the London Irish director of rugby, has shown imagination and ambition in his transfer activity.
The latest signing is New Zealand winger Waisake Naholo. The 28 year old has earned 26 All Black caps and dotted down for 16 international tries. He will move to England after fulfilling his World Cup commitments.
Naholo played latterly with Super Rugby side, Highlanders and has been a prolific scorer, bagging 41 tries in 58 appearances. He is relishing the new challenge.
“London Irish is a team on the up and has an exciting future”, said Naholo. “There is plenty of ambition, a world-class training facility, a good group of coaches and players and some exciting signings coming in.”
While supporters welcome Naholo’s capture as proof of ambition, there will be mixed feelings on the signing of Paddy Jackson.
The 27 year old has spent the past season in France with Top 14 strugglers Perpignan. The season has ended in relegation for the Catalan outfit.
Jackson’s move to France was surrounded by controversy. A court acquitted him on a rape charge. However, Ulster revoked his contract after deeming text messages he exchanged with the other defendants unacceptable.
Jackson will be in the spotlight as he arrives at the club. While the signing has already attracted some criticism, Kidney is supportive. He knows the stand-off well having handed Jackson his first cap in 2013.
“He is a player with proven international quality who we feel will add value to our squad”, said Kideny. “It is pleasing that Paddy sees London Irish as a part of his future.”
Adding to the high calibre Exiles squad is the arrival of Australian prop Sekope Kepu. Now aged 33, Kepu has been involved with the Wallabies since 2008. He became a cap centurion last October and now has 103 international appearances to his name. Kepu will join the club at the end of the year.
“He will bring valuable experience to our front row, having proved himself at the highest level”, said Kidney.
Also joining the club in December is Sean O’Brien. The back row has more than 50 Irish caps to his credit and has twice toured with the British and Irish Lions. As was the case with Jackson, O’Brien first appeared for Ireland when Kidney was in charge.
The player has unfinished business before linking up once more with Kidney. But, he is looking forward to the new surroundings.
“It’s a club that’s been around for a long time and there’s an obvious connection to Ireland”, said the 32 year old. “For now my concentration remains solely with Leinster and Ireland but it’s an exciting challenge that awaits.”
His arrival was announced in February. Allan Dell also confirmed his arrival at the Exiles from Edinburgh several months ago. The 27 year old prop was born in South Africa but qualifies for Scotland through his grandmother. He features in Gregor Townend’s World Cup training squad named earlier this week.
Others bolstering the Irish bid to make an impression in the Premiership include Nick Phipps and Curtis Rona.
Kidney expects Phipps, an Australian international scrum half, to be an important signing.
“He has plenty of experience, both in terms of playing as well as leadership”, said Kidney. “Both of these will be important as we build for the future.”
Phipps’ fellow Australian, Rona, brings experience of both rugby codes. Kidney has high expectations for the 26 year old centre who stands 6ft 4ins tall.
“He has power, pace and plenty of ability with ball in hand, and will complement the other players we have in the squad here at London Irish”, said Kidney.
The first objective for Irish will be to ensure they survive in the top flight. However, the quality of the signings suggests their targets go beyond being premiership also rans.
Written By Colin Renton