Topsy Ojo interview: ‘Rugby is in a mess - London Irish demise further risks young talent being lost’

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

London Irish great Topsy Ojo has warned that the Exiles’ demise will make top young talents turn away from careers in rugby.

Irish became the third Gallagher Premiership club to slip into administration on Wednesday, after being suspended from the league structure by the RFU on Tuesday night.

Owner Mick Crossan rejected the chance to keep bankrolling the Exiles, leaving unserviced debts spiralling past £30million. The Powerday founder hit out at broken promises from the US consortium that had held months of talks about an Exiles takeover, and criticised the RFU in the process.

Former England wing Ojo bagged 80 tries in 300 Irish appearances across 14 years with the Exiles, and has worked as an ambassador for the club since his 2019 retirement.

The 37-year-old admitted being rocked by the club’s folding, and urged the game’s top administrators to make sweeping changes or risk losing a generation of young talents to rival sports.

“Young people will turn away from rugby,” Ojo told Standard Sport.

“People will say, ‘rugby’s a mess, and I don’t want any part of that’, and things have to change now.

“Rugby is in a mess. Off the pitch it’s the worst it’s ever been. But then you look at the product on the pitch and you think, well, that’s actually delivering.

“You’d like to think with the Professional Game Agreement and the broadcast deal up for renewal for 2024/25, that the powers at the RFU, the Premiership and the RPA will figure out a way to structure, govern and finance the game properly, so that it is appealing for people to want to come into it.

“There’s a really amazing sport in there, that has given so much to so many. And that has to be salvaged.

“But the way forward is vital now. That’s the big question that needs answering, and simply has to be answered by everyone at the top of the sport.”

The NUE Capital consortium held more than six months of talks on taking over London Irish, and yet failed to deliver any substantive information whatsoever on the deal to the RFU.

Waste management magnate Crossan bought Irish in 2013 but had been clear at the start of the campaign that he could not continue to back the Exiles in the long-term.

Irish’s players, coaches and staff now face a stressful limbo in search of new jobs. The Exiles staff and players will continue to use the club’s Hazelwood training facility – especially as pre-season training had been due to start on Monday.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“It’s been a brutal few days; initially there’s been sadness, wondering how we got to this, then feeling for everyone connected to the club,” said Ojo, who won two England caps in 2008.

“You thought after what happened to Worcester and Wasps earlier in the season that it couldn’t happen to another team, and especially with this being my team, we all hoped and prayed a solution would be found.

“But as that deadline got closer and closer that optimism waned and waned.

“Now it’s a mix of sadness, anger, confusion and frustration. Everyone is still trying to work out what exactly happens next.

“The players will move on and try to secure new employment. For a lot of them that will happen quite quickly, but for others that will be quite difficult. It’s still very much up in the air.

You’ve got guys who were preparing to come back for pre-season, guys who are hoping to go on training camps for the World Cup – and then guys at the Under-20s tournament.

“They are away and trying to prepare to play for England, and now they don’t have a club to come back to.

“The biggest thing is just being there for each other, just being available, being a sounding board. Everyone has their own individual situations they have to figure out, and you want everyone to end up in the best possible situation.

“You want people that have given so much to the club not to have to go out like this. You almost don’t know what to say, but you’re all thinking the same things, in terms of how we got here.

“It’s a very tough period and will probably continue to be until the path going forward starts to look a bit clearer.

It’s a mix of sadness, anger, confusion and frustration

“Players need to train to stay fit, and staff might want to be around and see people. So hopefully the guys will continue to use the training ground for a while now.”

Ojo played his whole senior career at Irish, and credits his current punditry role to his experiences with the Exiles.

The ex-Irish wing still holds out hope the club could resurface in a new guise in future, despite the bleak current situation.

“The job and role I have now, that is all down to what I did and what I went through at London Irish, good and bad,” said Ojo.

“It’s been my whole adult life connected to Irish, I met my wife through the club and it’s been the same for many, many people.

“All those memories, that’s what flashes back to you now. That’s what really brings the sadness, because you give so much, you give your whole life to it.

“That extends right through the club, and the supporters as well who have followed the club for generations. It’s tough to process that the professional side of that is now gone and non-existent.

“We all hope the club can come back, but there will be a lot that has to happen for that to be possible.”