By Graham Jenkins
“I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York,” sang Frank Sinatra in his legendary homage to the equally iconic city on the east coast of the United States.
It is a lyric that many will be familiar with but it will strike a particular chord with London Irish chief executive Bob Casey as his side ready themselves for their high-profile Aviva Premiership clash with Saracens in the same sprawling metropolis on Saturday.
The Exiles embark on the first regular season game staged outside England on the back of four straight Premiership losses that have left them firmly rooted to the bottom of the table and eight points adrift of fellow strugglers Newcastle as we enter the season run-in.
Without a victory since their home win over Worcester last month, which was just the third they have managed in the league this season, could a dramatic change of scene inspire a turnaround in the Exiles’ fortunes?
“I really think it could and we’re really excited about it,” said Casey, a former fan favourite and club captain who was appointed CEO last summer.
“I have been really impressed with the coaches and playing group and how they’ve stuck together. It has been a very difficult season, we haven’t come out moaning about referees and we have had probably the biggest injury list I have seen in my time at London Irish, but we are getting on with the job and very focused on what we have to do and we’ll take it week by week.”
The ground-breaking fixture in New York is the result of a tri-party agreement between the club, Premiership Rugby and sports marketing firm The Legacy Agency aimed at capitalising on the sport’s growing popularity Stateside.
“It is something we have always wanted to do and once the new owners took over the club it was something we wanted to do with the London Irish brand,” explained Casey,
“Our former chairman Dave Fitzgerald, who sadly passed away recently, was a real driving force behind it so this is a big part of his legacy. Our new owners have also been very supportive and very influential in making this happen.”
A victory is clearly the primary target as Irish battle desperately to secure their top-flight status, but there is arguably an even greater goal – the task of rescuing the very club itself.
“We’ve got to try and grow the London Irish brand,” said Casey. “You have got to say that over the last four or five seasons it hasn’t been growing at all. It has been a club in decline and the new owners are determined to drive this club forward. The game in America is a key part of that strategy to drive the club and the brand forward.”
Casey is confident that the fixture, which will be staged at the 25,000-capacity Red Bull Arena that is the usual home of the New York Red Bulls soccer franchise, will capture the imagination of the local population.
“There’s been a big appetite in New York for this,” insisted Casey. “There is obviously the rugby community and the Irish community but there is also the American public and they love their sport.
“We know that rugby is fantastic spectator sport and then there’s the game in terms of the contact, the physicality and some of the tries, I think they will really enjoy it.”
The game, and perhaps the prospect of experiencing the world-famous St Patrick’s Day celebrations in New York, has also enticed many of their regular fans to cross the Atlantic for the game.
“A few hundred have bought official packages but we reckon about 600-700 fans will be travelling,” revealed Casey, who also insists, contrary to some reports, that fans have been largely supportive of the venture.
“We haven’t faced much criticism because we have communicated with our supporters all along. We didn’t include this fixture in our season-ticket package and we always said to the fans that we were looking at the possibility of taking a fixture away from Reading and we made it as accessible as possible for them.”
For that support, Casey is clearly grateful. “We are very lucky we have very loyal and knowledgeable supporters who want what is best for the club. If they can see that this will help grow the club and grow the brand and potentially sponsorship then they are very supportive.”
Success on the field against defending champions Saracens, who claimed a 24-14 at Allianz Park earlier this season, would clearly be some priceless points in their battle for survival – but what does success look like off the field?
“I think we are looking at between 13,000 and 15,000 fans which would be great in Year One,” said Casey. “Hopefully there will also be a really good atmosphere at the stadium, a good and competitive game of rugby and I don’t see why that can’t happen.”
The showpiece event is the first in what is a three-year agreement between Premiership Rugby and The Legacy Agency, who are shouldering the financial risk posed by the venture, but Irish’s future participation clearly depends on their ability to avoid relegation.
“Yes, we’ve got to take it one year at a time but if this goes well I don’t see why not,” said Casey, who is well aware the club faces a battle on more than one front.
“It’s a big task, when the new owners took over the club (in 2013) it was in bad old state on and off the field so we have a real challenge on our hands. But obviously I love the club and we have some great people at London Irish, the owners have a clear vision ass to where they want to take the club and I believe in it. We have a lot of hard work to do but we will get there.”
That challenge continues in New York and, as Ol’ Blue Eyes once advised, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
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