Al Hoenig (a.k.a. Big-Al – whose first London Irish match was our first home game at the Madejski Stadium) takes a look back at our first season at the Madejski Stadium.

Saturday 2nd September 2000, 3pm – London Irish take on Saracens at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, the start of the Exiles 20 year stay in the Thames Valley.

But this was not the first London Irish match at the Madejski Stadium, we have to go back a couple of years to the 1998-1999 season – Boxing Day 1998 – Richmond hosted London Irish at the Madejski, I have not been able to find much detail of the match other than it being a 25-13 victory for the Exiles in front of a crowd of over 9,000.
Our next visit to the Madejski Stadium was for the 2000 Tetley Bitter Cup Semi Finals, but on this occasion it was to be disappointment for us, Northampton winning by 24-17.

Moving forward to the 2000-2001 season and the Madejski is now our home ground and that match against Saracens was my first London Irish match (it was actually our 3rd match of the season having already beaten Quins at the Stoop, but lost to Northampton at Franklins Gardens). My main memory of that match is Paul Sackey running nearly the length of the pitch to score.
Due to the wonders of the ESPN Scrum website I can confirm that the match finished with a 27-22 score line in favour of London Irish, Kieron Dawson & Paul Sackey scoring the Exiles tries with Jarrod Cunningham adding a conversion & 5 penalties. All Saracens points (a try, conversion, 4 penalties & a drop goal) came from Thomas Castaignede.
The London Irish line up on that day was (and I’m sure many of the names will be familiar to a good number of us):

15 Conor O’Shea (c); 14 Paul Sackey; 13 Tabai Matson; 12 Jason Wright; 11 Justin Bishop; 10 Jarrod Cunningham; 9 Kieran Campbell; 1 Mike Worsley; 2 Richard Kirke; 3 Simon Halford; 4 Ryan Strudwick; 5 Steve Williams; 6 Eddie Halvey; 7 Kieron Dawson; 8 Chris Sheasby; Replacements – 16 Kevin Ellis; 17 Barry Everitt; 18 Dinos Alexopoulos; 19 Declan Danaher; 20 Neal Hatley; 21 Rob Hardwick; 22 Glenn Delaney

It would make for a very long article if I was to give details & line ups for every match of the season, so I will just mention a few notable results:
7th October was our first European match at the Madejski, a comfortable 42-10 over Aurillac in the Challenge cup (we also hosted and defeated Brive & Piacenza at home, but despite wins on the road in Aurillac & Piacenza, Brive pipped us to the ¼ final spot).
On 19th November, 7 penalties from Barry Everitt secured a 21-16 win against Harlequins, meaning we did the double over them that season.
We were unbeaten at our new home until Leicester came to visit on 10th February and went away with a 28-9 victory.  On February 20th, we put over 50pts on Rotherham scoring 6 tries in a 54-11 victory.
The 1st St Patrick’s match at the Madejski Stadium was on St Patrick’s day and we beat Northampton 13-10 with a try from Paul Sackey and a conversion and 2 penalties from Barry Everitt.
The season finished on 16th April with a 35-10 home win against Gloucester.

We finished the first Madejski season in 8th place in the league qualifying for the end of season play-offs where we lost at Leicester in the ¼ finals. We also reached the ¼ final stage of the Tetley’s Bitter Cup, but all our matches in that competition were away – the 5th round match at London Welsh in November 2000 was my first London Irish away match.

But for me, the main memory of that first season was the first match at the Madejski – there was something about the atmosphere at the match, and excitement of Paul Sackey’s try (if I recall correctly a 85 meter break from inside our own 22) that made we want to come back.

Is there any player from The Madejski Era who you think is missing from the LISC Hall of Fame. We will be asking for nominations later in the season – my nomination may well go to Paul Sackey.