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Words: John Butler, Pictures: Nick Meredith and John Coles

Relegated from last season’s Premiership, London Irish, many people’s favourites to bounce straight back up, make a first ever visit to the Butts Park Arena on Saturday.

One has to go back 22 seasons to find the last occasion the two clubs met – and it happened twice in a week – but despite the distance this is still a vivid memory for everyone closely associated with Coventry Rugby.

In the spring of 1996/97, in the early days of professional rugby, Cov & Irish clashed twice in the end of season play-offs, for the right to play Premiership rugby the following season.

Coventry were considered as underdogs, being the side from what was then division two, who were attempting to put one over opponents for whom defeat over two legs, would have meant relegation.

The record books show Cov edged a Wednesday evening nail-biter at Coundon Road by 16-14, before Irish, back at their Sunbury headquarters four days later won the second leg 28-7.

For around 20 years prior to those play-off meetings, fixtures between Coventry and London Irish were something of a rarity.

Fading records show however that, post-World War Two, the clubs’ first ever clash was in season 1961/62, when Coventry won 13-0 at Sunbury. For the following 18 years or so, meetings came about once a season

But during the 1980’s there were only two National Cup clashes, plus a couple of games at second team level.

Since then, meetings really have been spasmodic. A couple of the old-style club matches, plus just six at league level, the last two of which were those much talked about 1996/97 play-offs. Currently, the league records show Cov leading by four wins to two.

Saturday’s visit of unbeaten London Irish really does constitute a big challenge for the Coventry squad. The Exiles, courtesy of consecutive wins away at Ealing Trailfinders, and over Nottingham and Bedford Blues at the Madejski Stadium, arrive in third place in the Greene King IPA Championship.

They also have a match in hand over ten of their rivals, since somewhat bizarrely, their proposed visit to Jersey two weeks ago was postponed due to there apparently being no suitable accommodation available on the island, with so much else going on!

London Irish’s director of rugby is Declan Kidney, who took over following last season’s relegation. In charge of Ireland’s senior squad from 2008-2013, the Cork product was instrumental in helping his country claim a Grand Slam in 2009. Behind Kidney is a highly experienced coaching team, plus many players who were retained after relegation.

Notable amongst the newcomers is fly half Stephen Myler from Northampton Saints, whose goal kicking already positions him within the Championship’s top points scorers. Hooker Dave Porecki, in his third season at the Madejski, currently leads his club’s try tally with three.

Two players listed in the London Irish squad this season have previous Coventry connections through dual registration. Prop forward Danny Hobbs made 14 appearances from 2012/2014 while back row forward Max Northcote-Green made five in 2013/14.

In the opposite direction, although sadly currently sidelined with injury, is hooker Darren Dawidiuk, who joined Cov during the summer.

Two wins from four currently sees Rowland Winter’s team positioned in mid-table. Home form has shown against both Jersey and Bedford Blues that the squad are more than capable of holding their own in the Championship, although away form has perhaps been just a little frustrating thus far.

The arrival of London Irish on Saturday constitutes a very major challenge, even with the massive support the Butts Park crowd will undoubtedly generate. This home following will have a very big hand to play if they are to see their squad become the first to lower Irish colours this season.

Advanced tickets for the IPA Greene King Championship clash, preferentially priced at £18 (seated), £15 (standing) and £2 (ages three to 16) are available before 4pm on Friday from the Butts Park Arena ticket office on 02476 231001.

Entry without an advanced ticket is also available on the gate.