LONDON Irish look hell-bent on becoming the Toulon of the Premiership following the newly-promoted club’s decision to buy-in a new team from around the globe.
The announcement this week that the Exiles have signed All Black winger Waisake Naholo, a lethal finisher still in his prime at 28, is the tip of an iceberg of international-class imports. These include Australia lock Adam Coleman – as predicted months ago by Neil Fissler in TRP on 20 January – as well as his Wallaby team-mate, 103-cap tight-head Sekope Kepu.
The controversial signing of former Ulster and Ireland fly-half Paddy Jackson, which was also revealed this week, has also unleashed a whirlwind. Despite his rape case acquittal last year, there has been a social media storm following the news of Jackson’s arrival at Hazelwood, with some London Irish fans withdrawing their support for the club.
At the same time the volume of high profile players joining Irish has fuelled speculation about how they are funding this spending spree and remaining within the salary cap.
Among those that are signed and sealed are Ireland and Lions flanker Sean O’Brien and Scotland and Lions loose-head Allan Dell, while the Exiles are hoping to land two more Wallabies, scrum-half Nick Phipps and centre/wing Curtis Rona. They are also in negotiations with the Castres, Tonga, and former Leicester back rower, Steve Mafi.
Add that lot to an existing Exiles roster that already boasts former Wallaby hooker Saia Fainga’a, Australian U20 tight-head Ollie Hoskins, veteran South African lock Franco van der Merwe, American centre Bryce Campbell and Fijian full-back Alivereti Veitokani, and the plan is clear.
This is a London Irish transformation that mirrors what Toulon did when their owner, Mourad Boudjellal, decided to win promotion from France’s Pro D2 in 2006 and turn the club into the Top 14’s answer to the United Nations.
The Toulon experiment started with Boudjellal’s big bucks attracting the likes of Andrew Mehrtens, George Gregan and Dan Luger to the Mediterranean coast, with Tana Umaga and Sonny Bill Williams not far behind.
However, the overseas transplant started to bear fruit only when Jonny Wilkinson arrived at the Stade Felix Mayol. The England World Cup winner’s exceptional work ethic and uncompromising quest for Everest-high standards inspired not only the other highly-paid overseas stars who flocked to the club, but inspired the Toulon fans who loved his commitment on the pitch and off it – including his embracing of local culture and efforts to become a fluent French speaker.
When Bernard Laporte, the then Toulon coach and current French Federation president, initially asked Wilkinson to be captain, he declined. Laporte insisted, saying he had to be skipper because of the example he set.
“You are God for the other players in the team,” was the way Laporte put it to the reluctant Wilkinson – and a hat-trick of European Cup titles later, with the first two won under Wilkinson’s captaincy, Boudjellal and Laporte had their reward.
Since Wilkinson departed the scene Toulon have maintained their Top 14 status, but there has been a steady decline. This has been accompanied by Boudjellal being scathingly critical of overseas imports he believes are not pulling their weight, with former All Black try ace Julian Savea getting a tongue-lashing this season.
Boudjellal fumed: “I’m going to ask for a DNA test. They must have swapped him on the plane… If I were him I would apologise and go back to my home country.”
It is unlikely anyone at London Irish will go off on a Boudjellal-style rant, least of all Declan Kidney, their quietly spoken DoR, if his expensive signings do not gel instantly. However, the climb facing the former Ireland and Munster coach to turn his United Nations side into a force in the Premiership, let alone Europe, is more mountain than hill.
My view is that the only chance of it working is if Kidney can find a Wilkinson-style catalyst to bring the disparate parts of his new team together. The chemistry surrounding Wilkinson’s success at Toulon was unique, but other teams have built their own dreams and found their own heroes.
The Irish have a serious obstacle to overcome at the outset, not least because at the moment their main play-maker, Jackson, comes with a history that makes him more of a divisive figure than a unifying force.
If there is a character in this recast London Irish squad who can pull them together tightly enough to give them a mission, and the work ethic, standards, and inspiration to achieve it, then he will truly be worth his weight in gold.
It is the only way, for instance, that the Irish will be able to attract the level of support to fill the coffers, or to fully exploit the tremendous power, pace and try-scoring instincts of Naholo, who has so far scored 16 tries for New Zealand in 26 Tests.
That way the Exiles overseas brigade could prove to be galacticos who take London Irish to new heights. The alternative scenario is of mercenaries who take the money and run, leaving the club poorer in every respect.
It is the multi-million pound question – and unless a Jonny Wilkinson-like force emerges to inspire the Exiles it is likely to be more of the latter than the former.
NICK CAIN / Photo: Getty Images