London Irish’s acquisition of 100-cap Wallaby second row Rob Simmons can pave the way to a title challenge next season, says fellow Aussie Sekope Kepu.
Simmons, a World Cup final starter in 2015, will join the Exiles on completion of the Waratahs’ Super Rugby campaign and become part of their growing stable of Australians, forming a formidable second row pairing with another former Wallaby lock, Adam Coleman.
Prop Kepu, who won 110 caps for Australia, told The Rugby Paper: “I was surprised we got Rob but he’s a great acquisition and it’s a massive step towards furthering our chances of being in the top four and winning the competition one day.
“Adam Coleman settled in well and was really enjoying his footy up until the lockdown, so to have those two paired together is something I’m really excited about.
“Rob’s lineout work is top-class and having worked closely with both him and Adam for many years with the Wallabies, they’re two of the best locks I’ve played with.”
Analysing the strengths of 31-year-old Simmons, whose Test century came against Georgia in Japan last October, Kepu adds: “He’s very experienced and with the way he’s able to calm tense situations and pull things together, his leadership is exceptional.
“He leads from the front and also has a very good edge about his game and brings a lot of physicality, so he’ll be well suited for the Premiership. He’s a genuinely nice bloke as well and a great man to have around for a team that harbours our ambitions.”
While a title charge looks unlikely this season, as eighth place Irish prepare to renew their campaign at Bath on Saturday, Kepu saw enough during January and February to believe they can maintain their current trajectory and seal a Champions Cup place.
Having featured in successive victories over Northampton, Harlequins and Gloucester, the 110-cap tighthead said: “For the guys to put in the performances they did before I got here was pretty good and, after that, we were getting into the flow.
“We were just getting used to how each other played and you saw in some of our results how it was coming together. It’s a pity the season came to a standstill and we’ve lost a few guys now, but we’re building again and everyone’s in a good space.
“Losing (forwards coach) George Skivington was a massive loss but Jon Fisher’s taken on the lineout coaching and done really well, while Ross McMillan had been helping with the scrum anyway and has just taken a bit more of a grip on things there.
“We know it’s a big challenge ahead going to Bath on Saturday because they beat us quite convincingly at our place, but that’s a big incentive for us to go there and get things up and running again with a good win to boost our chances.”
At 34, Kepu is entering the twilight years of a career that started in New Zealand, where he represented the All Blacks at U19s and 20s level before he joined the Waratahs in 2008 and went on to enjoy a stellar Test career in green and gold.
Kepu feels fresher than ever, though, explaining: “During lockdown we headed back to Auckland where my wife’s parents and my parents still live, so it was good to get back there with our four kids and spend some quality time with our families.
“We got back here in the middle of June and from a physical and mental perspective it’s been pretty good. There’s always the bumps and niggles and you rarely play rugby 100 per cent fit, so to give the body a proper chance to recover has been beneficial.
“One the reasons for coming here in the first place was to get away from the stresses around the travel involved in Super Rugby and international rugby in Australia, so I’m feeling really good and am looking forward to stringing games together.
“It’s been fun playing in the Premiership with a really diverse bunch of guys, most of whom I’d played international rugby with or against. You’re constantly learning so I’m looking forward to getting at least another season and a bit in here now.”
While Kepu is looking forward to a bright future in London, Rugby Union in Australia is on the ropes with players leaving and Super Rugby in tatters.
While disparaging remarks towards Australian rugby have emanated from New Zealand, Kepu hopes a trans-Tasman competition can provide salvation.
He added: “It’s sad where it is in Australia but from talking to guys there, they’re still upbeat about playing footy and both countries need each other, especially during these times, so I’m sure they’ll eventually be able to work something out.
“It’s a love-hate relationship between Australia and New Zealand but it could be an unbelievably good competition and it’s the only way forward.
“It would be good to see a Pacific Island team in there as well and although we’ll have to see what works within the restrictions around borders, it would allow young guys from the islands to come through and play rugby at a very high level.”