London Irish pair Johnny Williams and Theo Brophy-Clews eye England Under-20 glory

By Adam WilliamsBBC Sport
Johnny Williams and Theo Brophy Clews
Johnny Williams and Theo Brophy Clews both made their senior London Irish debuts this season

It has been a season to forget for London Irish, but despite the pain of Premiership relegation, two of the club's homegrown players have stepped up to the top table impressively in their first year as professionals.

Centre Johnny Williams and fly-half Theo Brophy Clews, both 19, have stood tall alongside more experienced team-mates.

And after a steep learning curve following their respective Premiership debuts, the focus for the pair now shifts to international duty with the England Under-20 squad at the World Rugby Championship in Manchester next month.

'Tough pill to swallow'

Reading-born Williams burst on the scene in an Irish shirt back in November and made an immediate impact.

Five tries in his first three senior appearances, including a Premiership debut double against Wasps at Twickenham, made him almost one of the first names on head coach Tom Coventry's teamsheet from then on.

Johnny Williams celebrates a try against Wasps
Two tries on his Premiership debut against Wasps brought Johnny Williams to the attention of a wider audience

But the inside centre, who started the season dual registered with Henley Hawks, admitted experiencing just four Premiership wins and the relegation that followed was "a tough pill to swallow".

"Personally, I try to take the positives out of everything," he told BBC Sport.

"At the end of the day, you have to look at it and say we'll go down to the Championship and gain confidence from winning a few games.

"We'll learn a lot from this experience as young players and hopefully we'll look back on it as something that has made us better players."

A strong finish to his debut season saw Williams grab another try against Wasps to take his Premiership tally to four.

'Shock' to the body

Opportunity came the way of Brophy Clews, another product of the Exiles' academy, when injuries sidelined fellow fly-halves Chris Noakes and Shane Geraghty.

Withdrawn from the England U20 squad for this season's Six Nations, the Oxford-born teenager was thrown in at the deep end for his full Premiership debut against a high-flying Exeter side in February.

Theo Brophy Clews
Theo Brophy Clews started five Premiership matches for London Irish this season

"It didn't just surprise me, it shocked me," he said. "In terms of physically, mentally and tactically.

"You get used to the pace of the game fairly quickly, the physicality takes a bit longer. The tactical element, certainly in my position, that's what I've learnt most this year.

"You can't just play all the time. You've got to take the game into your own hands at times and put the other side under more pressure."

Playing alongside a friend in Williams has been a great boost for Brophy Clews.

"We joked at the start of the season that it would be great to play together," he added. "We've come up through the age groups together since we were pretty young.

"He's played really well this season, but it's been great to learn together playing relatively the same position.

"I can always rely on him to give me the ball if he's under pressure on the field and let him get smashed."

Coach's high praise

In a season of such great disappointment for Irish, the emergence of Williams and Brophy Clews has led to an optimistic belief that the best way to bring about a return to the top flight is to give youth its head.

Head coach Tom Coventry believes the pair will make a big impression on the Championship next season.

London Irish head coach Tom Coventry
Tom Coventry will hope to take Irish back to the Premiership at the first attempt next season

"They've been marvellous and they've proved they can step up to the mark," the New Zealander said.

"I think we're going to see some massive growth from those boys next year. They'll get the chance to develop, hopefully with some wins under their belts.

"These boys will take all the benefit of this year's blooding in the Premiership into the Championship.

"We're all hoping for bigger and better things from them as well as some of the other academy members who helped win the Premiership Shield this season."

Ready for the England 'challenge'

Johnny Williams and Theo Brophy Clews
Williams and Brophy Clews have grown up together through London Irish's academy

Once Johnny and Theo have given their growing bodies time to recover, they will take their place in a 28-man England squad for the Under-20 World Championship which includes more of this season's breakthrough names.

Northampton back Harry Mallinder, Harlequins winger Joe Marchant and Gloucester centre Ollie Thorley have all displayed Premiership potential this year.

But Italy, Scotland and Australia will provide stiff opposition in Pool B as Martin Haag's side kick-off their tournament on 7 June at the Manchester City Academy Stadium.

"It's great the tournament's in this country, so they'll be a lot more home support than usual," Brophy Clews said.

"It's a great opportunity to bond with a new group of players and have a new challenge to focus on.

England's under-20 World Rugby Championship Pool B fixtures
Tuesday, 7 June: v Italy, Manchester City Academy Stadium
Saturday, 11 June: v Scotland, Manchester City Academy Stadium
Wednesday, 15 June: v Australia, AJ Bell Stadium

"People like Harry Mallinder and Joe Marchant are players I've been involved with in the age groups before, so it's good to see them and learn a lot from their experiences in the Premiership this season."

Williams also plans to share the lessons learns from 17 Premiership appearances this season have taught him.

"I'm really looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity to impress people and coaches," he added.

"It's a big stage for age-grade rugby, so the new environment, new training facilities and new squad are something I can't wait for."