Rugby: Exiles plan for total domination

London Irish, rescued from the brink of extinction by 700 shareholders just five years ago, believe their commercial activities could make them the Manchester United of Rugby.

London Irish, rescued from the brink of extinction by 700 shareholders just five years ago, believe their commercial activities could make them the Manchester United of Rugby.

Under new player-coach Brendan Venter, the South African international centre who was with them as a player from 1997-99, they are aiming high on and off the field.

On the new £350,000 Desso pitch at Reading FC’s Madejski Stadium, the aim is a top six finish in the Zurich Premiership and qualification for the Heineken Cup.

For the future, the club hope their new player development programme will produce a home-grown side filled with both English and Irish qualified potential internationals.

Commercially London Irish believe they can become the undisputed champions of club rugby, tapping the huge Irish American market in the United States by marketing their new shirts the result of a six-figure sponsorship from MG Rover with the innovation of squad numbers encased in the Guinness pint design of the club’s beer sponsors.

The club are expanding their marketing activities to the USA, France and the rest of Europe and Chief Executive Geoff Huckstep predicted: ‘‘We believe the London Irish franchise can become the Manchester United of rugby.’’

They are also hoping the switch to Sunday rugby at the 24,000-seat Reading ground will result in better crowds by attracting a chunk of the 25,000 enthusiasts who play or watch rugby on Saturdays in the Thames Valley area.

Clashes with Reading FC thrown up by the fixture computers forced the decision which was already being considered by the club, but Huckstep said: ‘‘It will enable us to capitalise on what be believe is the appeal to families of rugby.

‘‘It means thousands of rugby enthusiasts can come along and enjoy ’The Craic’. I believe in a few years all the top clubs will be playing on Sundays.’’

London Irish’s plan to supplement the family spirit with a team of players nurtured from the junior ranks will be overseen by Conor O’Shea, the inspirational skipper who is the voice of the club, right down to doing the recording on their answer-phone message.

‘‘We have seen a massive turnover of players and it has been difficult for the fans to associate with them. In future years we want more or less a home-grown side,’’ said O’Shea, who hopes to return in October from a badly broken ankle.

‘‘We want players to play for the club, not just the money. If you are here just to pick up a pay cheque you are at the wrong club.’’

Rebuilding bridges with the Irish rugby union, who want their internationals playing for clubs at home, is one of the main aims of new player-coach Venter.

He said: ‘‘We really want to bring the Irish ethos back to the club. I think in the next two or three years you will see a couple of big-name Irish players playing for London Irish and it will be a joint venture.’’

Next week Venter takes his squad on their pre-season Irish tour, with the highlight a match against a Munster XV at Musgrave Park, Cork, next Tuesday night.

‘‘Ireland is where we will be playing our pre-season friendlies but our future lies in English Premiership rugby,’’ he insisted.

But the club’s other ambition is undoubtedly Irish.

Last season 23,800 pints of Guinness were drunk at the St Patrick’s Day home match against Northampton and Huckstep said: ‘‘Next year when we play Bristol Shoguns on St Paddy’s Day we intend to top the 25,000 mark.’’

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