London Irish in the spotlight at 2019-20 Gallagher Premiership fixtures launch

Three months before the 2019-20 Gallagher Premiership season gets underway and already the fixtures are inked in until the New Year, with BT Sport’s television schedule decided for the first eight rounds. Click here to see the fixtures.

The opening round takes place on 18-20 October, coinciding with the start of the knockout phase of the Rugby World Cup in Japan. By that date last year, we had already had six rounds of the Premiership; this time it will take until Christmas to reach that number.

“It’s an odd season, with the games really stacked at the back end,” said Les Kiss, head coach of London Irish, at yesterday’s fixtures launch at BT Tower. “It’s going to be interesting trying to work out where you sit in the hierarchy of the competition. By Christmas time you’re probably still scratching your head thinking about where you stand.”

2019-20 Gallagher Premiership fixtures launch London Irish celebrate winning the Championship, April 2019

Back with the big boys: London Irish celebrate winning the Greene King-IPA Championship in April (Getty)

The Exiles are back in the big time having clinched the Championship title in April with a match to spare. Two years ago, on their previous return to the Premiership, their optimism was quickly punctured and they won only three of 22 games to finish bottom by 14 points.

This time they’ve signed a clutch of experienced, mostly southern hemisphere internationals, with the likes of Sekope Kepu, Adam Coleman, Nick Phipps and Waisake Naholo linking up with talent from closer to home in the shape of Sean O’Brien, Allan Dell and Paddy Jackson. O’Brien is a long way off a return to action following hip surgery. “It will be well into next season that we find out when we get him back. That’s unfortunate,” said Kiss.

2019-20 Gallagher Premiership fixtures launch Sean O'Brien, one of London Irish's new signings

In rehab: new Irish signing Sean O’Brien is a long-term absentee (Sportsfile/Getty)

The former Ulster and Ireland assistant coach continued: “The club has got 12 or 13 different nationalities, so you’re trying to pull together a lot of minds about how they play the game and how they’ve grown up with it. Getting something that everyone buys into has been a real good learning experience.

“The group that got us up will start the season off for us and it will be a slow integration of the players coming in, either through design or through the World Cup. We won’t have our full XV together until probably the last day of December.”

Kiss was forced to fend off questions about Jackson, whose signing in May came 14 months after he had been found not guilty of rape at a trial in Belfast. The fallout led to Diageo, a major sponsor, cancelling a sponsorship deal with the club, but Kiss said: “The bottom line is we’re a rugby club looking for good players and Paddy is a quality footballer. It’s an opportunity for him to further his career.

2019-20 Gallagher Premiership fixtures launch Paddy Jackson, a London Irish signing

No 10: Paddy Jackson has joined from Perpignan (Getty)

“People will have their opinions on the back-story and the past. We believe what we’re about and that we’re doing the right thing. Things will be thrown at us I guess. The story is about everyone, we’ve signed a lot of good players. Ultimately we’re a team and come what may, we’ll stick together. I think there’s more support (for Jackson) than not so, that’s my view.”

Kiss highlighted Newcastle, relegated a year after making the semi-finals, and Northampton, who “finished like a house on fire” after early struggles, to emphasise the fluctuating fortunes of the Premiership. Irish’s initial fixtures include a trip to the champions, Saracens, who will almost certainly be without their England stars that day regardless of how Eddie Jones’s team gets on in Japan.

“A good start is important but it doesn’t define the season. You’ve just got to keep working away and believe what you’re about. This game teaches you lessons pretty quickly and ultimately we’ve got to ensure we don’t get hijacked by one or two poor results early on if that happens, and stay true to what we believe will make a difference in terms of our game style and culture and where we want to take the team.

“It’s bloody scary coming up, that’s for sure. We’re under no illusions. But we can’t afford to go in trying to survive, we’ve got to attack the competition. We’ve been at the Madejski Stadium 19 years and we have to do it justice. It’s important we finish our time there well.”

Irish will leave their rented home in Reading after next season to become tenants at Brentford FC’s new Community Stadium.

As is the way with promoted clubs, Irish will be tipped by many to prop up the table again but we shall have to wait and see whether that will mean an instant return to the second tier.

On 13 September, the RFU Council meets to vote on a controversial proposal to create a 13-team Premiership; should the move be passed, it’s expected that no team would be relegated at the end of the 2019-20 season. The team finishing bottom of the new 13-team Premiership in 2020-21 would then face a two-leg play-off against the Championship winners to determine who qualified for the following season’s Premiership.

2019-20 Gallagher Premiership fixtures launch

Let’s chat: coaches Phil Dowson, Les Kiss and Ian Peel with Martin Bayfield at the launch event (Getty)

True rugby fans will be dismayed, although not surprised, by such a proposal, with a vast swathe of ‘meaningless’ games the inevitable result of this ring-fencing by deception. The Championship club will be hugely disadvantaged in the play-off system because of the different calibre of opposition each team will have faced in their respective campaigns.

The irony is we’ve just had the greatest Premiership season ever – as event presenter Martin Bayfield referenced when introducing video highlights of 2018-19 – and in large part that was down to the incredible multi-team scrap to avoid the drop. What a sad day it will be for rugby if the right to promotion is effectively scrapped.

It’s unlikely that Alex Lozowski has spent much time pondering such matters given he belongs to a high-flying Saracens club that hasn’t flirted with relegation since around the turn of the century. The utility player, looking bronzed from a Californian holiday, remains weighed down by news of his omission from England’s World Cup training squad.

“I didn’t react very well to it. It still burns now really,” said Lozowski about the dreaded call he received from Eddie Jones. “It’s probably the most disappointing selection of my career.

2019-20 Gallagher Premiership fixtures launch Alex Lozowski, England v Japan, Nov 2018

Opening up: Alex Lozowski, in action v Japan last autumn, spoke of the pain of World Cup rejection

“It’s tough to take but I’ve got to crack on with it and there are games after the World Cup, more rugby to be played. I don’t believe I’m done with England. I think I’ve got something to offer and can make a difference to the team. I’m determined to get back in that fold and show what I can do. Hopefully I can use this darkness that I’m carrying around with me at the moment and come back a better player.”

Although part of the England scene for the past three years, Lozowski has only won five caps and probably paid the price for a poor performance against Japan last autumn. His mood brightened when recalling a recent visit he made with Brad Barritt to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where Saracens will play Harlequins in round 15 in March.

2019-20 Gallagher Premiership fixtures launch Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

What a venue: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will host Saracens v Harlequins next March (Getty Images)

Lozowski, who as a teenager spent time in Chelsea’s academy, is a Spurs fan and met one of the club’s star players, Deli Alli, on his visit, exchanging shirts. The England footballer was taken aback at the roughed-up state of Barritt’s body. “Have you been playing today?” he asked him, unaware that the Saracens captain always looks like that!

“It’s nice to be at home in front of our fans for the first game (Northampton),” said Lozowski, “and then the game that stands out for me is that one at Tottenham against Harlequins. It’s a London derby and there’s always a bit of extra bite in those games. So playing them in a stadium like Tottenham’s will be good.”

The Gallagher Premiership campaign gets underway with a repeat of last year’s opener, Bristol v Bath, on Friday 18 October and sparks what Bayfield calls “ultimate couch potato time” as the first three rounds overlap with the business end of the World Cup. You’ve got plenty of time to stock up the fridge.

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