As London Irish prepare to take on Newcastle this weekend, I caught up with centre Tom Fowlie at their Hazelwood training base.
We begin our chat by talking about his rise to the first team. Having left school the previous summer, Fowlie was given his Premiership debut by Brian Smith at the Twickenham Stoop. Facing up against England stars Danny Care and Mike Brown was no easy task, but at the time, Irish had backline quality of their own, in James O’Connor, Marland Yarde and Topsy Ojo. Fowlie speaks of what he learnt from the trio: “I learnt so much off O’Connor. Just the way he took the ball to the line, creating so many options for the boys outside him. Even on his team, we had no idea what he was going to do next, so the defenders didn’t have a chance!
“Marland is a great player, his ball carrying, and the way he was able to beat players was incredible. You pick up little snippets of advice along the way.”
Though Fowlie was just 18 when he made his debut, he saw the departures of such incredible back-line talent as an opportunity: “I think when big players depart, someone has to take their place, and I saw it as a great chance. Things haven’t quite gone to plan since then. I’ve had one big hamstring injury, but I’m back fit and raring to go.”
Despite being just 22 years old, Fowlie is Irish’s seventh longest serving player, and has been with the club throughout their difficult recent years. He speaks of his experiences under different coaches (Brian Smith, Tom Coventry and Nick Kennedy), saying that “Smith was pretty ruthless. It’s tough. There’s not a lot between them. The coaches now have created a brilliant culture, and it will eventually get the best out of us as players.
“It sounds silly saying that when we haven’t won in a long time, but it will improve massively. At the end of the season, when there are tight games, it will shine through. We’re so tight as a group, and it’s only a matter of time before it comes to fruition.”
Our conversation moves onto this season, and Fowlie is able to look forward to upcoming games against Newcastle and Leicester, despite such a difficult start to the campaign: “The Premiership is a very tough league – there are no easy games. Our next games are Newcastle and Leicester, who are both very strong sides. We got off to a really good start against Harlequins, but things haven’t gone to plan since then. We’ve been building every week, but it hasn’t quite clicked yet. We’re really confident for this weekend vs Newcastle.
“We can’t change what’s happened now, but there’s still 55 points on offer, and we’re only 10 off the bottom. All our focus is on looking forward to the next game, and doing the best we can. We’ve got to really go for broke over the next few games, against Newcastle and Leicester. We’re really confident for Newcastle, and can’t wait to get out there and secure a good win!”
Fowlie was a part of the Irish team which fell to Worcester last weekend, and speaks of the team’s disappointment at their performance, saying, “We were gutted after the game. We didn’t cross the gain line enough which is partly down to our carries being substandard, and made silly errors that we shouldn’t be making.
“It’s nothing to do with a lack of effort; the boys worked so hard, and have done throughout the season. The work-rate was there to be seen on the night, but it was such a big game, and the occasion got to us. There’s no point looking back now – we can’t change anything.”
The performance against Worcester was marked by an inability to break down a stubborn Warriors defence, and Fowlie talks about how the team are working on improving their attack: “We’ve been trying to get better at ball carrying. We need to make sure we get set earlier, so we can come onto the ball at pace and win collisions.
“We’ve also been looking at our breakdown post contact. It’s so important to clean out the ruck early, and snap the ball back quickly for the scrum-half. That’s how you break teams down.”
Irish’s task of avoiding relegation is now undoubtedly harder after their recent form, but Tom Fowlie remains confident of survival. “In a way, there’s less for us to lose now the Worcester game is out of the way. It was a massive game. Sadly, we didn’t perform well at all, but it could be a good thing now it’s behind us.
“We can’t go into our shells, and we’ve still got to score more points, while conceding less at the same time. We’re dying to get out of the situation we’re in. I love London Irish; I love the ethos around the club, the coaching staff, the boys, and we’re all going to do everything we can to turn it around.”
It’s this passion which has stood Irish in good stead over the years, and a 10 point gap is far from insurmountable. Tom Fowlie is a perfect example of London Irish’s prolific academy, and is a key part of Nick Kennedy’s squad of fighters that plan to get out of the situation they find themselves in.