Tom Pearson Exclusive: Battle for the top four, time at Cyncoed & England

Tom Pearson is in his second season of professional rugby after leaving London Irish
©Pinnacle for London Irish

There are just three games standing between London Irish and their hopes of making the Gallagher Premiership play-offs for the first time since 2009.

Their St. Patrick’s Party game at the Gtech Community Stadium is key to their hopes of breaking into the top four. Northampton Saints currently sit in the pivotal fourth position, the Exiles chasing their visitors two points behind in fifth.

With tickets selling quickly, there is every chance it will be a dominant home crowd. Taking place just six days after the club’s brutal Premiership Rugby Cup final loss to Exeter Chiefs at their home stadium, those in green will certainly be smarting, although the hunger to get their noses over the finishing line first in this play-off push will be at an all-time high.

It is a good time to bear the name ‘Irish’. Both the men’s and U20s rugby union teams recently won Guinness Six Nations Grand Slams, while at Cheltenham a week ago it was the Irish who cruised home to the Prestbury Cup.

Hoping to catty on that rich vein of form is London Irish’s Tom Pearson. At just 23, the openside flanker has already proven himself to be invaluable to Declan Kidney’s side and is on the hunt for success with the club that plucked him from Cardiff Met.

In attendance on Sunday afternoon as the Exiles fell short to Exeter in the Premiership Rugby Cup final, Pearson was among the throng of non-players consoling their teammates as the side fell at the final hurdle for a second year running.

Sat in Hazelwood, Pearson believes that the feeling of losing such a close run affair can help he and his teammates focus their efforts in the weeks to come as the regular season draws to a close.

“To lose a game like that, but to have another game six days later, especially it being the St. Patrick’s Day fixture, we can’t ask for much more really, in terms of having the ability to redeem ourselves,” Pearson said.

“It’s important to bottle up that feeling, but we have to move on as well. We are proud of the feeling, but we have got to move on. So, to have the St. Patrick’s Day game is the perfect opportunity to change the mindset and really go for it this week and take that feeling into Saturday.”

Irish’s end to the season will be anything but smooth. Instead of being a plain track to the finish line, there are plenty of cuts in the ground. Between this time in late March and their final game of the Premiership season in early May, there are six weeks.

It is hardly a flying finish, although it does give Declan Kidney and his brains trust plenty of time to plot their attack with the home straight in sight. A team that has been trending towards the top half of the table since their most recent promotion back to the Premiership in 2019, the occasion of playing postseason rugby for the first time in 14 years is not lost on Pearson. 

“To get a play-off spot would be unbelievable,” the forward said. “It would be a massive boost for the club. I know it is cliché, saying you are taking it one game at a time, but last season we were still in contention for a play-off spot with four or five games to go, then slipped off massively.

“We ended up being on the wrong side of a few results and suddenly we just scraped into Champions Cup rugby, which in itself was a good result for us, and to finish up eighth in the league, which was really competitive, was one up on the year before.

“So, you know, to go one step further this year and for a potential top four spot would be incredible. It just shows how close it is this year with the amount of teams in contention. We can only do what we can and win our games that we have got left - which is one less than most, which is important to remember.”

In short, nothing short of five points at the end of each 80 minutes ahead of London Irish will do.

They will have their work cut out for them too. Northampton’s trip to West London is followed up with a visit to first-place Saracens in late April, before their final game of the season two weeks later when Exeter come back to the scene of their most recent success, Brentford.

As referenced by Pearson, Irish were at one stage serious challengers for a top four finish. Undone by a poor run of form across March and April, it made for perilous viewing as one of the league’s great entertainers ended up scrapping for a top eight finish and a shot at Heineken Champions Cup rugby the following season.

This season, lessons seem to have been learnt as Irish aim for the jackpot once again. Beating title contenders Saracens, Harlequins and Sale Sharks this campaign shows that there is more of an edge to this group, who at this moment in time have won five of their last six games in domestic competition.

Since making his London Irish debut Tom Pearson has been discussed as a potential England player
©Pinnacle for London Irish

It is the kind of form that the club will want to maintain across these coming weeks, the return of their international stars from Six Nations duties coming at the best possible time.

Able to recall the likes of Henry Arundell [England], Ben White [Scotland], Danilo Fischetti and Luca Morisi [both Italy] to the matchday 23, the quartet’s arrival back in London enough to help turn the side from rank outsiders to more of a sure thing.

“We know we have still got more in us,” Pearson said. “I think some of the boys, guys like ‘Schetti and Whitey, and how well they have done in the Six Nations, both of those guys have been standouts for their countries, both of them are proper starters for us and their personal form just shows where the club is going.

“To be in a play-off spot is exciting – something we don’t focus on too much. I think you can get caught up in that play-off race quite easily, and rather than just taking it a game at a time, it is important we stay on our mettle here and make the most of every training session before the season ends.

“You know as well as us, it will be over before we know it. So, we have got to make sure that this is a period that we get right and put our best foot forward come the 6th of May.”

It has been 17 months since Pearson burst onto the scene. Joining London Irish in 2021 after concluding his studies at Cardiff Met, the 23-year-old made his debut in the Exiles’ 21-33 win over Exeter at Sandy Park.

At times bullying the likes of Jonny Hill, Sam Simmonds and Sam Skinner in his 75 minute display, people quickly started taking note. So much so that in the months that followed, many were touting the young flanker to be included in the England squad.

Early in the New Year, Pearson was called into Eddie Jones’ squad that prepared for the Six Nations and then later in the year ahead of the Autumn Nations Series. A meteoric rise, it was Pearson’s rise to professional rugby which took to the fore.

Cardiff Met invited national press to their Cyncoed campus to see where the likes of Alex Dombrandt and Luke Northmore had been put through their paces before going pro. As the rain came down sideways, it was there that TRU among others gained an insight into the well-rounded approach that Danny Milton and the rest of the staff take.

Playing in BUCS Super Rugby, athletes are regularly exposed to elite rugby via free livestreams, while also getting the opportunity to develop physically away from the field and put themselves in the best possible spot to progress in their rugby careers, while also gaining a degree.

“At 18, I was in the Gloucester U18s, and if I was being honest with myself, I probably physically wasn’t ready for rugby at that point,” Pearson said. “For me, going to uni was the best choice.

“Say if I had been signed at 18, it maybe would have only lasted a year or two and I might be chewed up and spat out and I might not be here today.

“Going the uni route and getting a degree as well, at the same time as building myself up physically, I think that is one of the big points of uni rugby; the amount of rugby you can play within a two, three year period, can really set you up well for the rest of your career.”

London Irish play Northampton Saints this Saturday as the hunt for a top four finish continues
©Pinnacle for London Irish

Pearson would have some extra obstacles on his way to professionalism too. Brought down by the global pandemic and the various lockdowns that ensued, Pearson would spend 18 months waiting between games of rugby, his only outlet for an extended period being his strength and conditioning training.

Driving down to Cardiff from Herefordshire in his father’s work’s van as the world shutdown, Pearson would be given weights courtesy of Dai Watts, Cardiff Met’s S&C guru, and keep himself ticking over.

In the months that followed, Pearson and his teammates would be posting their efforts into WhatsApp group chats, the togetherness of the group maintained while the outside world was silent. 

Following a loan period with Cardiff Rugby, Pearson would sign terms with Irish. It had been quite a journey for the former Dean Close School pupil who was first introduced to Danny Milton at Rosslyn Park National School Sevens.

Coming out of university, Pearson says that his aim was to play in one Premiership match. The 23-year-old’s goal changing to 10 Premiership matches following his debut in a season which he ended up making 19 appearances and scoring three tries.

A constant goal-setter, already having 17 appearances for the Exiles under his belt this campaign, Pearson is likely to surpass last season’s total. Quite what the limits of his goals are uncertain, the 23-year-old having exceeded even his own expectations at times.

After his involvements with England in the past, you have to think that wearing a Red Rose on his chest later this year may well be on the list. With a Rugby World Cup peering around the corner and Pearson possessing all the qualities that new head coach, Steve Borthwick, appears to like, it is a simple answer to a simple question.

“For sure,” Pearson said. “As you know, I got a taste for it at the end of last year. I think I have just got to get myself in the best condition, play the best rugby I can, finish the season string and whatever happens, happens at the end of the day.

“I have just got to make sure if I ever do get that opportunity, I am in the best physical condition of my life. I know that is something Steve is big on, as well as playing decent rugby and pushing Irish forward.

“As well as myself going well, I think it is important that Irish go well as well. It is easier to get picked out of a winning team I find. So we will just push on and if selections did go my way, it would be great.”