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
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The Independent Online
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."