It’s been four and a half months since we last saw London Irish take to the field, though it feels like years! In that time our landscape has changed significantly and rugby fans have been left to try and cling onto any hint of normality… but next weekend Premiership Rugby returns and London Irish head up the M4 to face off against Bath. We caught up with Wallabies legend Sekope Kepu to find out how the team are feeling with competition on the horizon.
While lockdown was a strange and potentially scary time for everyone it must have been doubly so for Sekope Kepu. Not long arrived in a new country, trying to help his family settle while staking out his place at a new club. Kepu saw the sudden downtime as a bit of a blessing in disguise “It’s been a good chance for us to settle into London, to get to mix & mingle with a few of the other players and their families and just explore a bit so it’s been good fun. Obviously, the kids have been happy that there’s no school which means more time at home with us and them, so it’s been good. Now the weather has been quite nice it’s made things a whole lot easier for the family to settle in!”
It certainly won’t have hurt that London Irish has become home to quite a contingent of Australian internationals. “That was one of the reasons I decided to come here, having those guys around, that I’ve played with. They definitely made it a little easier for me to transition, and not only for the rugby but also for my family, getting a little bit of help… with no family around getting their support has been great” Of course there is another Australian joining the team in the coming months. Kepu is enthused about reuniting with Rob Simmons and cites the huge amount of experience he will bring as a big plus for the club.
That’s not the only reason Sekope chose London Irish though, with Declan Kidney marking a pitch to him. “We had a meeting face to face a little while back, with Les Kiss too. You try and see what type of person you’re dealing with… He wants to draw on my experience with the Wallabies and in Australia, but with the young players coming through here he wanted me to be a mentor. With the club transitioning back into the Premiership he saw that as a real opportunity for me to help the club and for myself I saw it as a real challenge to try and build something special.”
“I think Declan has done really well, bringing in a couple of lads from the Irish team, obviously the Aussie boys and then guys like Steve Mafi and Motu with their international experience. It’s a pretty diverse group which is nice and I’m really enjoying being part of it!”
We’re passionate about seeing players develop through the ranks at this club so to hear the talk of being a mentor is definitely positive. “I do a bit of work with the younger guys coming through, like Luke Green and also with Harry (Elrington) and those guys. You’ve got a lot of local talent and you’re never short of props over here. They love to eat and they love throwing a bit of tin around so trying to keep up with them in the gym has been good!”
“The body is feeling good, I’ve had a chance over the break to let some little niggling injuries settle.” Sekope tells me when I ask if he is feeling ready to get back to matches. “I guess you can only do so much training before you get sick of it because you’re ready to play. I think I speak for the majority of the boys that we’re keen to start playing! We’ve been doing our best within the guidelines to get our work done leading into next week.”
Of course, getting back to competitive rugby isn’t quite the same as getting back to normal. Stadiums will be empty of fans and, to begin with at least, it’s bound to feel different for players too. “It’s going to be like going back to club footy (amateur rugby), playing rugby in the park… The pressure of the crowd can have an influence but I don’t think it will overly affect how the games pan out.”
Starting out on the road will help the transition to this temporary version of normality. Kepu is under no illusions about our opposition. “We expect their forwards to be a massive challenge, they’ve got a great team and traditionally they’ve been a great club. We’ll prepare as best we can this week and next, focusing in on their forwards and their scrum.”
We then host Northampton at The Stoop. With the win over Saints perhaps the highlight of the London Irish season so far the team are keen to repeat that result. “The game we played up there… they won’t want a repeat of that so there will be some fire in that game!”
With all the hype about our forthcoming move to Brentford I ask whether he has had a chance to visit the stadium yet. Kepu says he hasn’t been but he has been stopped in the street by fans saying how they’re excited for the club to be moving closer to home.
To hear a player with over a hundred caps for a top international team still have so much passion for the game is pretty exciting stuff. It’s clear Sekope Kepu is more than ready to hit the ground running at the Rec and I, for one, can’t wait to see how he and his teammates get on!