Richmond's coup heralds the new era

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

Whatever the incipient rugby union transfer market may portend, it will struggle to produce anything as dramatic as yesterday's five-man coup with which Richmond heralded the official start of club professionalism.

At the Cafe Royal in Regent Street, where they were founded 135 years ago, the newly-promoted Second Division club introduced the Bath and England back-row forward Ben Clarke as their new captain. They are also paying around pounds 200,000 to gain the release from rugby league of the former Llanelli and Wales forward Scott Quinnell, whose contract with Wigan will terminate at the end of June.

The lock Richard West from Gloucester, prop Darren Crompton from Bath and wing Jim Fallon from Leeds RL club were the other three to be added to the half-backs acquired from Cardiff last month, Adrian Davies and Andy Moore. West won one cap as a member of England's 1995 World Cup squad, Crompton is an A international, as is Fallon, a former Richmond and Bath player whose contract with Leeds runs out in September.

Nor have Richmond, who are funded by a pounds 2.5m investment by the Monte Carlo entrepreneur Ashley Levett, finished. They are in discussion with another leading union-to-league convert, the Wales centre Scott Gibbs, of St Helens, whose transfer fee would be much the same as Quinnell's, and expect to attract a couple more "international-status" players to their part of south-west London in the next week or two.

But they did not have the field to themselves yesterday now that the Rugby Football Union's season-long moratorium has finished. Leicester announced that their outstanding front-row trio - Graham Rowntree, Richard Cockerill and Darren Garforth, all yesterday included in Francois Pienaar's Barbarians team for the Peace Match against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday week - had signed five-year contracts and that the Scotland wing Craig Joiner was joining from Melrose. Within Scotland, the international prop Alan Watt yesterday transferred to Currie from Glasgow High.

The Scottish , nervous at the prospect of others following Joiner's lead, is to consider introducing loyalty payments for those who stay in Scotland, though it is difficult to see how they could hope to match the sums being paid out to the likes of Clarke and Quinnell.

In Clarke's case, a top-of-the range five-year deal worth around pounds 120,000 per annum has been enough to persuade him to leave Bath, even at a time when England's premier club have just done the Double and also to take a chance on his England career by dropping into the Second Division. Not that the player sees it that way: "I have every intention of playing for England again and I wouldn't do anything to jeopardise my England career."

Both Clarke and Quinnell yesterday mouthed the usual platitude that what had really attracted them to Richmond was "the challenge". But in fairness to the club, their well-heeled ambition is another allure and yesterday's appointment of John Kingston, coach for three years, as director of rugby will provide important continuity for the current squad, all of whom have signed contracts of intent binding them to Richmond until the end of next season.

Richmond's multiple early strike in the transfer market situates them strongly for a challenge in next season's Second Division, where two more of rugby union's nouveaux riches, Newcastle and Saracens, will provide intense competition.

On that score, there remains the proviso that Saracens' relegation from the First still becomes reality if the RFU and the leading clubs under the umbrella of Epruc ever resolve their differences over finance and control of the professional game.

With promoted Richmond now members of Epruc, Symon Elliott, the chief executive, moved significantly from the support of the union he expressed four weeks ago. "We are not in favour of a breakaway from the RFU but I am sympathetic with the aims of Epruc and I give them our full support in representing us at the table with the RFU," he said.

BARBARIANS (v Ireland, Dublin, 18 May): D Campese (New South Wales); E Rush (North Harbour), P Sella (Agen), P de Glanville (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); S Bachop (Otago), J Roux (Transvaal); G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth (Leicester), W Waugh (NSW), O Roumat (Dax), F Pienaar (Transvaal, capt), B Clarke (Richmond), L Cabannes (Racing Club).

A decision on the case against Neil Back, the Leicester flanker, for pushing the referee at the end of last Saturday's Pilkington Cup final has been delayed to the end of the week so that Roy Manock, the RFU's national discipline officer, can study video evidence.