THERE used to be a time when the London exiles clubs were major suppliers of players to their various national sides. No more. These days London Welsh hardly exist, London Scottish are healthier but don’t have many Scots and the main supplier of Scotland contenders is London Irish.

The side, who play their games at Reading in the Madejski Stadium, have three full Scotland internationals on their books plus others, like Scott Steele, the scrum half, who are qualified but have never featured in an international context. Not that they are all likely to face Edinburgh in the European Challenge Cup this week.

Greig Tonks, who played last week, picked up a knock and is unlikely to feature; Gordon Reid, has yet to start a game after a concussion scare; Mike Coman, the former Edinburgh captain is also injured.

Then, there is Blair Cowan. Two and a half years ago, he was a firm Scotland favourite after a storming RBS Six Nations Championship, but he lost his spot in the national squad when fellow openside John Hardie arrived from New Zealand and was thrust straight into the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad.

You would think there must be a lingering rivalry between the former favourite and the man who took over. Not at all, says Hardie.

“Blair and myself get on really well,” he insisted. “He joined us in the World Cup and played well. He is a quality player and has been a big player for them [London Irish] for a long time. He’s someone we’ll need to watch out for, especially over the ball and his attacking threat too. It will be good.”

To be fair, neither is guaranteed to play. Cowan has featured in every match for London Irish this season and if the club decide to prioritise the Premiership, where they are last but one after winning promotion back to the top division last season, over the Challenge Cup, he might be rested.

Hardie missed last week after picking up another head knock, but he is confident that he is over the lingering after-effects and is ready to go again – hoping for a start and the chance to get one over on Hamish Watson in his battle for the Edinburgh and Scotland flanker spots.

“The last few weeks I’ve had a bit of time off the bench,” he admitted. “I’m enjoying it. Last week I was still recovering but I’m ready to rip into it this week if selected. I think I’m building well, fitness and body are good so there is no real excuse.

“There are so many good options at the moment, though. We’ve got good depth there [the back row] at the moment, with a group of young boys who are performing well. That’s great for the club. We’ve got good stocks in the back row. They all have their good traits.”

Which is understating it.

Apart from his own battle with Watson for the openside berth, Magnus Bradbury, the club captain, and Cornell Du Preeez, both full internationals are also fighting for back row spots while Jamie Ritchie has arguably been the form player of the entire unit.

Add the likes of Luke Crosbie, the 20-year-old who made his debut last week and seems likely to be given another chance in Reading, and there is no shortage of options for Richard Cockerill, the head coach. What is still missing is consistency.

“We are heading in a great direction at the moment,” Hardie claimed. “We were not happy with last week’s performance [the win over Zebre] but it is about being consistent every week. There is a no sort of fear attitude.

“We have a young team and need to have everybody on the same page – but it is improving. There are a lot of young guys coming through, definitely which is keeping us on our toes.

“When I first came we did not have great depth; now we have two or three sides we could put out. That is really positive.”