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Rugby Union: Clarke leads fight to survive

Richmond 19 Northampton 31
BEN CLARKE took a 7.00am phone call last week from Clive Woodward, the England coach. Though having been assured that he was in the selectors' minds, Clarke's worst fears were confirmed. The vacancy in the back row for the trip to Australia would be filled by Tony Diprose.

The news effectively meant that Clarke's international career was over. He was devastated, but it did not last long. Clarke, the Richmond captain soon learned of a development that was to have an even bigger impact, the selling of Richmond down the Thames.

"My disappointment turned to anger," Clarke said. "Nothing like this has ever happened in rugby before. A lot of the clubs who are trying to finish us off have been in trouble themselves. It's scandalous that they should get together and plot the end of a fellow club."

English First Division Rugby, the body representing the 14 clubs in the Allied Dunbar Premiership want the league reduced to 12 and see former ground sharers Richmond and London Scottish as the Disposable Two. The Scottish, who have no money, are being swallowed by Bristol, who have plenty, while Richmond are considered fair game after going into administration in March when their benefactor in chief, Ashley Levett, took his chequebook away.

The Board of EFDR then decided to invoke a clause in the small print enabling them to buy a club in critical financial condition and close it down. In a statement , they said: "One of our aims is to protect the interests, tradition and integrity of the amateur club for future seasons." The key word is amateur. Richmond would no longer play a part in professional rugby.

Richmond see it as an offer they cannot accept. EFDR says if refused it will exercise its option to buy the club for a pounds 1. The deadline is today. The motive for the action, as explained to Richmond's officers by Keith Barwell, Northampton's owner, in the directors' room at the Madejski on Saturday was: "There are 28 professional clubs in England, there is not the structure to support them all. There are only so many rations in the lifeboat and the weak have to be pushed out so the majority can survive."

Barwell also revealed that, before Levett cut his losses, he had phoned the Monaco-based entrepreneur with an offer of pounds 100,000 to buy Alan Bateman Richmond's Welsh international centre. Levett was not interested. Barwell's implication was that, if Richmond had sold Bateman, they might now still be on the bridge instead of firing the distress flare gun.

As Barwell tried to explain the inexplicable, Tony Dorman, the Richmond president, bought him a pint. "Don't shoot the messenger," Barwell told Dorman, before adding that the decision of the EFDR Board to apply the coup de grace was unanimous.

This does not tally with the intelligence gathering of John Kingston, Richmond's director of rugby, who has written to all his counterparts in the Premiership. "A lot of them are horrified at what's happening," Kingston said.

Kingston confronted Barwell on Saturday and found a chink in the armour. "Mr Barwell said that a possible solution to this problem was to have four clubs relegated next season with two going up from the First Division. This was in the space of a five-minute conversation, so I cannot imagine that the EFDR have thought this thing through thoroughly."

Richmond intend to fight the EFDR in court if necessary. "The arrogance of these people is unbelievable," Dorman said. "They have been in rugby for two years and have decided it's time that a club that has been in business for 138 years should cease to exist. They have no such mandate and we will not allow them to rewrite history."

Richmond: Tries Vander 2, Quinnell; Conversions Va'a 2. Northampton: Tries Malone, 2 Phillips, Seeley; Conversions Dawson 4; Penalty Dawson.

Richmond: M Pini; N Walne, A Bateman, M Deane (J Wright, 56), L Best; E Va'a, A Moore; G Powell, B Williams (A Cuthbert, 57), D Crompton, C Quinnell, C Gillis, M Swift (A Sheridan, 66), B Clarke (capt), A Vander.

Northampton: N Beale; C Moir, A Northey, (D Dantiacq, 71), M Allen, B Cohen; M Dawson, D Malone; G Pagel, C Johnson, M Stewart (M Volland, 74), J Phillips, T Rodber (capt; S Hepher, 28), P Lam, G Seely (C Allen, 8), B Pountney.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).