From present profit to tense future

Paul Trow wonders what plans the nouveau riche have for the next regeneration
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The Independent Online
Two questions hover uneasily over the new-found wealth which rugby union has attracted, and spent, in recent months. The first, an accountant's query, is what happens when the money runs out? The second, more a marketing matter, asks whether the product is actually any good.

Addressing the second question first, Bath's drubbing by Wigan at Maine Road under rugby league rules last Wednesday cruelly demonstrated union's running, handling and, possibly, fitness deficiencies.

But Bath, as Courage League champions and Pilkington Cup winners, are likely to remain the biggest attraction in the English game for the foreseeable future despite losing Ben Clarke to Richmond, struggling to hold on to his England team-mate Mike Catt and abstaining, so far, from the transfer market.

Unfortunately, most other clubs do not have this luxury, especially as the lion's share of the next television deal, whether it is negotiated under the auspices of the Rugby Football Union or the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs, is likely to reward mainly the League One sides.

For those already in the top flight, the need to attract fresh investment and playing talent may not yet be urgent. But they should not rest on their laurels because multi-millionaire benefactors like Sir John Hall at Newcastle, Nigel Wray at Saracens and Ashley Levett at Richmond are impatient for success.

Both Newcastle, who have already bought a brand-new first team, and Richmond, the instigators of last week's transfer orgy, are bound to contend strongly for next season's League Two title. But the first question still remains, what is being done to develop these clubs as viable businesses capable of supporting life after largesse?

Symon Elliott, Richmond's chief executive, is in no doubt what their approach should be. "We need to create a familyleisure experience, so we can move away from the traditional rugby image. Our main income streams are sponsorship, gate receipts and television money, and we must develop all three.

"We have a catchment area of about 2.5 million people and are already capable of attracting crowds of up to 10,000 for a few events. But at present the focus is on weekends and match days. Long term, we need to bring more people on to the site throughout the week."

Much of this will only be achieved by increasing the facilities and seating at the club's ground, which is owned by the Crown and shared with London Scottish. And that, in the short term at least, could cost as much money as their recent recruits.

Their neighbours Harlequins, who recently signed a pounds 1.5m deal with the Japanese firm NEC and anticipate landing another sponsor soon for pounds 2.5m, are scathing about Richmond. "What a waste of money," said Quins' director of rugby, Dick Best. "Not just the players, but the whole song and dance they have made about signing them. Just think how the players who earned them promotion this season felt."

Saracens, another family- orientated club serving a big catchment area, are having to cope with the extra complication of not knowing whether they will be in League One or Two next season. Whatever the outcome of that particular debate, they are pressing ahead with plans to build a new stadium in Enfield.

Wray's pounds 2.5m has bought them time, as well as Philippe Sella and Michael Lynagh. "It's basically a hobby for him," said the Saracens official Bill Edwards. "He doesn't expect a return on his money for five or six years, if that."

A few other League Two clubs have also been active on the transfer scene, but one which has not is Waterloo. Do they worry about being swamped by their well-heeled rivals? "Not really," said a club spokesman, Ian Fazey. "A lot of these stars are getting on a bit and will take a while to recover if they get injured. We've got mainly young players, but come September they will be really fit and raring to go."