London Irish sealed their return to the Premiership with a 46-7 victory at the bottom club Richmond that secured the Championship title with one match to spare.
It is the second time Irish have bounced straight back to the top flight after relegation. They have already strengthened their squad with the Ireland and Lions flanker Sean O’Brien and with promotion secured, other internationals are set to follow, including the Australia scrum-half Nick Phipps.
Irish also want to make the New Zealand wing Waisake Naholo one of their top signings and the Australia second-row Adam Coleman has been approached, along with Steve Mafi, the Castres and former Leicester No 8, and the Australia three-quarter Curtis Rona.
Richmond, whose players are amateur, took the lead after five minutes against the side who swallowed their professional setup 20 years ago after they and London Scottish went into administration. Irish were not ahead until the 27th-minute but they secured the bonus point before half-time and their thousands of supporters at the ground were able to celebrate early.
Two tries from the former Sale back-rower TJ Ioane early in the second half meant there would be no unlikely comeback and two more, scored by Josh McInally and Alivereti Veitokani, concluded the win and ensured that their final match, at home to second-placed Ealing Trailfinders, did not become a title decider.
“Sean O’Brien is a massive signing for us,” said the London Irish coach, Declan Danaher. “You only have to look at the way he has played for Leinster, Ireland and the Lions. He will set standards and show the boys what is required to play at that level. Things will become clearer in the coming weeks about other signings.”
Irish will end a 20-year stay at Reading’s Madejski Stadium in 2020 before moving to a ground being built near Kew bridge, which they will share with Brentford FC. It will hold 17,250 fans and gives added motivation to remaining in the top flight.
The question is whether this will be the last season when the bottom club is automatically relegated. “There is a strong feeling the Premiership should go to 13 clubs,” said the Gloucester owner, Martin St Quinton. “It is then a question of whether there should be promotion and relegation. I believe it is good for the sport, and the thinking is now is that there should be a two-leg play-off as long as the top team in the Championship meets the entry criteria.”