Rugby Union: Clarke relishes survival fight

Richmond's rise has turned sour but the players, at least, refuse to let the dream die on the field. By Chris Hewett

THEY CALLED it the Richmond Experiment and like so many experiments down the ages, Ashley Levett's audacious attempt to invent a designer all-star team for the new professional age has gone up in smoke, leaving behind it blackened faces by the dozen, singed eyebrows by the score and a filthy great hole where the roof used to be. Those players and back- room staff who still have a job are earning a lot less money doing it and while a leaner, meaner Richmond could yet rise from the ashes of a hundred broken dreams, the events of the last nine days nevertheless represent a dark moment in the fortunes of the English club movement.

Levett's snap decision to cut and run after sinking a cool pounds 8m into reviving the long-forgotten London dinosaur he exhumed three years ago, follows hard on the heels of Sir John Hall's dash for the shadows at Newcastle. Almost at a stroke, the professional game has lost two of its pioneering investors. Who next? Frank Warren wants out of Bedford, Tony Tiarks is off-loading London Scottish to Bristol and Chris Wright has frequently bemoaned his lot at Wasps. Much to the delight of rugby's "we told you so" traditionalists, the money men are pulling out of town and heading for their villas in the hills.

Suddenly, the united front presented by the clubs' umbrella organisation, English First Division Rugby, appears to be precisely that: a front. The muscle-flexing pressure group that mounted a legal challenge to the International Board's rulebook, boycotted the European Cup and fought two years of trench warfare with the most powerful forces in the world game now looks like a seven-stone weakling.

"When Sir John turned his back on the sport after insisting he was in for the duration, he definitely sent out a signal to the rest," said one source this week. "His departure made it easier for Ashley to pull out. There was no longer any shame attached to walking away. Some of those investors who do not come from a strong rugby background now see no reason why they should keep pumping money into a game that has given them nothing but grief."

Indeed, much of the current grief is to be found within the ranks of EFDR itself. It was no coincidence that Levett returned his wallet to his inside pocket within a week of Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester owner and EFDR chairman, announcing that the elite clubs would begin next season's Premiership programme in September and play, albeit under-strength, through the World Cup. Walkinshaw's comments infuriated a number of investors, including Nigel Wray of Saracens. For Levett, the proverbial camel's back was now carrying one straw too many. Frustrated, disillusioned and almost terminally cheesed off with the politics of incompetence, he reached for the plug and pulled hard.

All this on the eve of a Premiership match the Richmond staff - at least, those that are left following Wednesday's purge by the financial consultants called in to take a bottom-line view of the business - confidently expect to attract the biggest crowd in the 138-year history of the club. Bath, this afternoon's visitors at the Madejski Stadium, are going through a trough of their own - new contract negotiations at the Recreation Ground are said to be particularly brutal, with players being asked to agree salary cuts of up to one third - but that has not stopped the match generating its own commercial momentum. "We sold every hospitality package months ago," said one Madejski insider. "Sadly, we're not at all sure whether there are enough people left at the club to cope with the occasion."

Not surprisingly, the very mention of Levett's name provokes mixed feelings amongst the Richmondites. Few are willing to damn the multi-millionaire copper trader and full-time tax exile unreservedly - after all, it was his money that gave Richmond a team full of big names and a place in the Premiership elite, not to mention a forthcoming Tetley's Bitter Cup semi- final with Newcastle - but there again, few are eager to sing his praises. "He certainly chose a bad moment to jump ship," groaned one member of the back-room staff this week. "We thought we knew him, we thought he was with us. This has come as a real smack in the guts."

Not least to Ben Clarke. In his way, Clarke was every bit as fundamental to the Richmond project as Levett's credit card; certainly, he was more, far more, than a big-name player and an inspirational leader. His decision to leave Bath and commit himself to the new venture effectively put the whole show on the road, his arrival presenting the ambitious Londoners with a magnet powerful enough to attract the likes of Scott Quinnell, Barry Williams, Agustin Pichot and Allan Bateman. Had Clarke stayed in the West Country, Levett might well be pounds 8m better off.

But Clarke did not earn universal respect as a "player's player" by curling himself into a ball at the first sign of trouble. "This has been difficult, terribly difficult, for everyone involved," he admitted this week. "A lot of people have poured their hearts and souls into this club and I can't pretend that the events of the last few days haven't hurt. But at times like this, the real professionals stand up to be counted. As far as I'm concerned - and I know I speak for the rest of the playing squad - the most important thing now is to react in a positive fashion, take our responsibilities on board and perform on the field, where it really counts.

"Too much time and energy have been invested in Richmond to let it wither and die. These three months we are spending in administration are crucial and I want the squad to come across in the right way. In many ways, the club will stand or fall on our contribution as players. As well as our cup semi-final, which is probably the biggest game in the history of the club, we have some tremendous Premiership matches - Saracens, Wasps and Northampton all have to come to the Madejski. Of course I wish we had shown more consistency in the league; people come to watch a winning side, after all. However, we have to believe that a run of good victories now will help turn things around."

Just at the moment, Richmond are not a pretty sight; bruised, battered and bloody, they look like an English heavyweight contender on a bad night in Madison Square Garden. But with more than 30 redundancies already announced and the pay cuts swiftly implemented, the worst may be behind them. The hunt is on for new investors and most of the smart money - none of it belonging to Levett - says the club will survive and thrive as a Premiership concern.

"People are talking about us taking the so-called `golden parachute' offered by EFDR and turning our back on Premiership status, but that's not the way we see it," said Malcolm Ball, the sales and marketing director. "I still believe we can make rugby work in the Thames Valley. I still hold to the ambition that brought me here in the first place: that we will be playing a Toulouse or a Brive in a European Cup final within three years and taking on the Auckland Blues or the Natal Sharks at the Madejski within five. I know this sounds strange given the week we've just endured, but we feel good about the future."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?