London Irish back rower Josh Basham with team mate Ben Loader

From Singapore to London Irish – Josh Basham’s unique rugby journey

London Irish’s Josh Basham has had a unique journey into professional rugby.

While most Premiership players work their way through the academy system on their way to the top, Basham took the unconventional route, moulding himself into part of England’s deep pool of young talent.

A story that began in the blazing Singaporean heat and featured a three-year stint at Durham University, has led to the 23-year-old enjoying his second spell with London Irish and with the golden chance to help the club grab coveted domestic success in this week’s Premiership Cup final.  

Playing games in torrential rain one day and then melting away in 40-degree heat another day, nine-year-old Basham soaked up all Singaporean rugby had to offer, which sparked his love for the game.

“That was when I started properly loving rugby, even if it was lashing it down or baking hot,” he said.

“One of the good things about Singapore rugby was that you had such good mates playing with and against you which made it so much fun.

“It meant that you’d want to win even more, and it just added more emphasis on the whole thing which I don’t think you would ever get in the UK.

“I’ve got no doubts that Singapore was great for me.”

The former England U20s representative also recalled crossing paths with a young Marcus Smith, who also grew up in Singapore, as they toured Hong Kong together in 2010 for the same representative team.

Basham’s Asian adventure would conclude in 2013 as he headed back to the UK when he was 13 to attend Wellington College, one of England’s most prestigious rugby schools.

London Irish then entered the picture and signed him to an academy contract in his final year of school before he made his first-team debut in November 2017 at age 18, less than five months after leaving Wellington.

Basham scored on his return to Newcastle in a crucial win over the Falcons

It’s rare that players make the quick transition from schoolboy to professional rugby, but Basham was thrown in at the deep end.

His fifth first-team appearance came in a Challenge Cup tie against Russian side Krasnoyarsk in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, and Basham recalled the post-match antics as his first eye-opening introduction into the professional rugby environment.

“We were in a very traditional Georgian restaurant, all the food was a bit bizarre, and the Russians were just necking wine glasses of vodka,” he said.

“They were challenging people to pint-offs and then came back with glasses of vodka and started challenging us to drink and everyone just shied away while they were rinsing the vodka, it was mad!”

Basham made nine appearances for the senior team in his first season after leaving Wellington and was undecided whether to stay on an academy contract for another year, but eventually made the decision to attend Durham University.

It was a choice that could have ended his ambitions of playing at the top level, but one that he doesn’t regret.

“Every week I’d go into a meeting thinking I still don’t know what I want to do, it was so draining,” he said.

“My entire life was rugby, and I was just completely jealous of all my mates that had gone to university, I was quite fed up with it at the time.

“By the time I’d finished my first year out of school I just wanted to meet some new people and I’m very glad I did it because it suited me perfectly, it was good for my mental health.”

A professional rugby environment and the university rugby scene are at two completely opposite ends of the spectrum, and the lifestyle change hit Basham hard initially as he lost six kilograms in fresher’s week.

But from there, playing in an environment that Basham described as ‘not that far away from professional rugby’ helped him shine and he was signed by Newcastle Falcons eight months into his degree.

An ever-increasing number of Premiership coaches are keeping a close eye on university rugby to unearth the next diamond in the rough with the likes of Basham, alongside Alex Dombrandt, Fitz Harding and Tom Pearson, all proving that it presents a genuine pathway into the top flight.

“I don’t see why you wouldn’t look there given the players that have come out of it and I wouldn’t be surprised if more players came through,” he said.

“It’s just more of a recognised pathway now, people are becoming more aware of university rugby and you’re not necessarily shooting yourself in the foot if you go to Uni.”

The balance between playing university rugby and training with Falcons was the perfect combination for Basham’s growth as he signed a three-year contract during his second year at Durham and made 22 appearances for the club before returning to Irish last summer.

Now, Basham is relishing in his return, making 12 appearances this season and becoming a prominent member of the Exiles’ squad.

He said: “It’s been such a good move for me, this is the most I’ve enjoyed my rugby in however many years.

“The environment suits me down to a tee because it’s really relaxed, there’s a great bunch of guys and I’m really enjoying it.”

With a playoff race in store and the chance to win the first top flight trophy for the club in more than 20 years in this week’s Premiership Cup Final against Exeter Chiefs, Basham is flourishing in Irish’s competitive environment.

The road less travelled certainly applies to Basham’s journey, but one that conveys the message of hope for players steered away from the traditional route to the top of English rugby. 

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