Last week we had a great chat with Terrence Hepetema and it was such a success we thought we’d better capitalise and catch up with his teammate in the centres, the impressive Tom Stephenson. @RugbyLI caught up with Tom the day after the team had trained alongside England in their build up to take on Wales…
So Tom, let’s start with last weekend’s game against Coventry. It was a pretty impressive win from where I was sat but how did it feel on the pitch?
We always felt in control and fairly confident we would win but we keep hitting bad patches throughout games and we’re trying to build a consistent 80 minute performance.
I thought some of our stuff was really good, we had phases in attack where we could put some of the things we worked on in training into play. That was pretty positive. Bust like I said we’re trying to put together that 80 minute performance and we’re not there yet.
We’ve had a bit of an issue the last few games with people pulling up injured in warm up or being unavailable at short notice. This meant you shifting in from 13 to 12. How much of a change is that so close to match time?
To be honest it’s not to bad for me. I train at both anyway and I’ve played a fair bit at 12 this season. It’s more about getting your head around it and not thinking about it. Terrence got ill the night before so I turned up to the game to find I was playing at 12 but it wasn’t too much of a difference.
You played a lot at inside centre during your time at Saints as well so that must have helped.
Yeah, when I was at Saints it was about 50-50 between the two positions. There is a lot of difference I find but I’ve played both so I wasn’t too terrified about it.
Do you have any preference, or is it more about where you slot in on the day?
I quite like 12 because you see a bit more of the ball but I enjoy the defensive side of the 13 role. It’s quite challenging and I’m learning more every time I play. I enjoy playing both to be honest, as long as I’m on the pitch!
Barring a bit of time injured early on you seem to have really hit the ground running so far. How do you feel you’ve settled in?
Yeah, I played the first 5 games and then got concussed and missed ten weeks or so which was a bit of a blip on the season but now I’ve got a good run of games together I’m feeling pretty confident and looking forward to playing more really. The more games I can put together the better I‘ll get.
I want to get back to playing consistently and I hope we get back up into the premiership next year and see where that goes.
I suppose having a consistent partnership must help too. You and Terrence seem to have formed a nice duo in recent weeks.
It’s nice playing with someone consistently. The first game together you’re just trying to read each other but now we’ve trained together for long enough and played together quite a few times I kind of know what he’s going to do so I can adapt to it.
I played against him quite a few times when he was at Leicester and I was at Saints so we know each other pretty well but it’s nice to be playing together consistently.
Obviously with Jacob Atkins, Myler and Keats it helps to build that relationship with them too.
I guess you already had that to some degree with Myler but with Jacob and Keatley that must take some time.
Exactly. Keats has only just come in so we’re trying to build that relationship now but he’s a good player so it’s not that hard. Jacob I think has been doing well, I thought he did really well when he came on at the weekend. It’s exciting playing alongside young guys like him, not that I’m old!
We love to see the lads progress through the academy and come good in the first team. You’re certainly far from one of the older heads in the squad but is sharing your experience with the likes of Jacob or Matt Williams something you’re conscious of?
Massively! When I was at Saints we had a really good group of young players and that showed in our A League performances. This season you can see them all playing and that’s part of the reason the team is doing so well, so it’s good to see the likes of Benny Loader, Matty Williams and Jacob all getting game time. When they’re ready and get a chance to play in the premiership they’ll be unfazed by it.
I think we’ve certainly got some good players at Irish. Matty Williams is exceptional so hopefully we’ll get him back fit. I think he’s a real talent! Benny Loader too, he’s got ridiculous amounts of pace.
I think it’s pretty exciting for those guys, I’m just hopeful they get enough game time.
How are you finding the Championship? I guess it’s your first time playing in the league?
When I was 17 or 18 I played two games for Moseley back when they were in the Champ but that was my only real experience of it and it was a little bit different.
It’s a tough league to be honest… we’re preparing to hopefully get back up to the Premiership but every team that comes to us they just want to beat us. There’s no real easy game, look at teams like Nottingham or Jersey they play really well against us and Nottingham have probably only won one game since. So everyone brings their A game to play against London irish and you can get caught up in their way of playing which we don’t want to do.
It’s difficult, especially away at places like Nottingham or Cornish Pirates where the atmosphere might not be as good or the pitch is boggy.
It’s been really good – don’t get me wrong I’d love to get back up to the Prem and would prefer to be playing there – but it’s been an enjoyable season so far.
You mentioned pitch quality there and for someone with a real running game that must make a difference, whether it’s boggy Cornish winter pitches or the Bedford slope.
Yeah, when we went down to Cornwall in December I only came on for ten minutes or so but it was boggy and rainy. You couldn’t really get a grip on the floor whatsoever so that type of pitch probably doesn’t suit me so well but you’ll get pitches like that in any league so you just have to get on with it I guess.
I definitely prefer when it’s a home game at the Madejski though.
It’s the cup semi-final this weekend (sic), how are you viewing that game. Carnegie seem a much changed team from when we first saw them this season?
That’s one of the things we’ve spoken about. They’re not the same team we played in October or November… They’ve recruited a few southern hemisphere boys and they are playing some really good rugby. They throw it around a lot, so we’re expecting more of that this Sunday.
Hopefully though we can get into the final and win some silverware at the end of the season. We’ve prepared well this week, we were training against England yesterday and the boys looked really sharp actually so we’re looking forward to the game this weekend!
You’ve brought me nicely onto my next question… How was it training up at Pennyhill Park yesterday?
I’ve just come out of physio and a few of the boys were in there talking about it. It was really insightful, the intensity they train at… they don’t necessarily do anything spectacular but they train and play at an intensity that is nothing like the Premiership or anything like that!
Considering we’ve been playing against Championship teams all year, yesterday we went and trained against probably one of the best teams in the world! To see that… we’re obviously far from that level at the minute but we’re not miles away! It was a good confidence booster for the lads to do that.
Especially the forwards who went really well against their pack. It was a really good day for us all.
There’s obviously a bit of difference in skills but the main thing we took was the intensity and the amount of ferociousness they put into the breakdown which is more about mindset than ability so for us it was really insightful and aspirational.
Last question from me. You’re used to pretty good crowds up in Northampton but how have you found the fans at Irish since you’ve joined?
I kind of knew before joining London Irish that they had really good fans so it was no shock when I met them. Even in the Championship they come out to Reading there are still a good bunch there!
I’d just like to thank them all and say keep coming to the games and supporting us!
Our thanks to Tom for taking some time out of his day and to the club for their continued support in arranging these interviews.