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London Irish: BTSport.com's Gallagher Premiership 2019/20 season preview

London Irish return to the Gallagher Premiership at the first time of asking and will be live on BT Sport for their return to the big time when they take on Wasps on the opening weekend.

Last season's Gallagher Premiership finish: Promoted

This season's target: Survival

Last season's top try scorer: Dave Porecki

Odds to win the Premiership: 100/1 (odds correct at the time of writing)

First four fixtures: Wasps (A), Sale (H), Saracens (A), Leicester (H)

Transfers in: Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Nick Phipps (Waratahs), Curtis Rona (Waratahs), Sean O'Brien (Leinster), Sekope Kepu (Waratahs), Paddy Jackson (Perpignan), Waisake Naholo (Highlanders), Adam Coleman (Melbourne Rebels), Will Goodrick-Clarke (Richmond), Ruan Botha (Sharks), Steve Mafi (Castres)

Transfers out: Josh McNally (Bath), Ian Keatley (Benetton), Brendan McKibbin (retired), Mike Coman (retired), Tommy Bell (Ealing Trailfinders), Topsy Ojo (retired), Fergus Mulchrone (Sale FC), Luke McLean (retired), Ciaran Hearn (released), Napolioni Nalaga (released), Teofilo Paulo (released), Manasa Saulo (released), Jake Schatz (released), Greig Tonks (released), Ofisa Treviranus (released), Sam Twomey (released), Gordon Reid (released), Sebastian de Chaves (Newcastle Falcons)

Never want to miss a London Irish game? You can watch live matches all season long in the Gallagher Premiership, Premiership Rugby Cup and Challenge Cup on BT Sport. If you’re not yet a subscriber, find out how we can get you signed up in just 15 minutes.

Read on for BTSport.com's in-depth London Irish season preview, or check out more from our exclusive series:

Bath | Bristol Bears | Exeter Chiefs | Gloucester | Harlequins | Leicester Tigers |  Northampton Saints | Saracens | Sale Sharks | Wasps | Worcester Warriors

Join now to watch Gallagher Premiership Rugby all season long on BT Sport

The story of last season

London Irish were promoted to the Premiership with a game to spare after thrashing Championship strugglers Richmond 46-7. 

The Exiles topped English rugby's second tier table by 13 points from nearest challenger Ealing Trailfinders, winning 20 games in total while losing just two. 

Irish' second promotion in the past three years also means they will play Premiership rugby in their final season playing home matches at Reading's Madejski Stadium.  

"We achieved our return to the top tier of English rugby, which was the only objective at the start of the season," said Irish CEO Brian Facer.

"I would like to congratulate and thank Declan Kidney (Irish rugby director), his coaching team and the players for working tirelessly over the last year to ensure this was possible."

Hopes for this season

Survival will be London Irish's primary objective this year but privately the Exiles will be quietly confident of causing a few upsets this season. 

Two years ago, on their previous return to the Premiership, their optimism was quickly punctured and they won only three of 22 games to finish bottom by 14 points.  

“It’s scary coming up, that’s for sure. We’re under no illusions. But we can’t afford to go in trying to survive, we’ve got to attack the competition," head coach Les Kiss told the club's website.

"We’ve been at the Madejski Stadium 19 years and we have to do it justice. It’s important we finish our time there well."

The Reading-based outfit have been on a high-spending recruitment drive as they bid to avoid a second top-flight relegation in three years. 

In May, the Exiles announced that All Blacks wing Waisake Naholo would be joining the club in a huge coup for the then Premiership hopefuls.

He will join a raft of new arrivals at the Madjeski Stadium including marquee names like Paddy Jackson, Scotland prop Allan Dell, Ireland flanker Sean O'Brien and Australia internationals Curtis Rona, Nick Phipps and Sekope Kepu.

For Kiss, one of the main challenges will be to integrate the new faces into the existing team culture.

“The club has got 12 or 13 different nationalities, so you’re trying to pull together a lot of minds about how they play the game and how they’ve grown up with it. Getting something that everyone buys into has been a real good learning experience," he said.

“The group that got us up will start the season off for us and it will be a slow integration of the players coming in, either through design or through the World Cup."

Rugby World Cup absentees

Motu Matu’u, TJ Ioane, Allan Dell, Steve Mafi, Bryce Campbell, Adam Coleman, Sekope Kepu, Aliverti Veitokani.

Key man: Waisake Naholo

The signing of the New Zealand powerhouse sent shockwaves through English rugby, providing an early sign of the Exiles' lofty aspirations.

The 28-year-old, who has scored 16 tries in 26 tests, was part of New Zealand’s victorious World Cup campaign in 2015 but missed out on selection for Japan.

Naholo, who has regularly shown his deceptive speed and strength to trouble opposing teams, won a Super Rugby crown with the Otago Highlanders in 2015 and remains the franchise’s all-time leading try scorer with 41.

"There is plenty of ambition, a world-class training facility, a good group of coaches and players and some exciting signings coming in," said Naholo after agreeing on a move to the Premiership in May.

"The supporters have a great reputation as well and I'm looking forward to it."

If Irish are to punch above their weight this season they will need their heavyweight winger firing on all cylinders.

One to watch: Curtis Rona

Australian rugby league convert Rona is aiming to dazzle fans at the Madjeski Stadium after narrowly missing out on selection for the Wallabies' World Cup squad. 

The 27-year-old back enjoyed a stellar Super Rugby campaign with the Waratahs earlier this year and joins Irish along with fellow Aussies Nick Phipps, Adam Coleman and Sekope Kepu - who advised him to try his hand at northern hemisphere club rugby. 

“I played a lot on the wing at the Tahs this year but Irish signed me as a 13 and I want to bring some X-factor," Rona told the club's website.

“Leaving Sydney was a tough decision but the opportunity to live on the other side of the world is something you don’t get every day.

“I haven’t played northern hemisphere rugby before so that will be a really good challenge and my wife’s got extended family who live in Essex, so it’s a great chance for both of us and our two children to see lots of different things.

“I’m excited to play in the Premiership and show what I can do with my ability on this side of the world, so watch this space!"

Upcoming Premiership fixtures live on BT Sport

20/10/2019 - Wasps v London Irish (2.30pm, BT Sport 1 HD and Ultimate)

22/12/2019 - London Irish v Bath (3pm kick off)

Find out all of our games chosen for live coverage across the first eight rounds, with 22 matches being shown on TV before the end of 2019.

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