Rugby Union: Clubs try to buy and shut Richmond

THERE WAS fun and games in the Allied Dunbar Premiership's bargain basement department yesterday as Bedford found themselves a new set of owners and Richmond swiftly rejected a hard-nosed - some would say cynical - manoeuvre by England's senior clubs to reduce the size of the league by paying off the their debts and closing them down. Any move towards a 12-team competition for next season now depends on whether another impoverished duo, London Scottish and West Hartlepool, can find ways of staying in business.

After a harrowing season of high-profile resignations, salary delays and threatened player strikes, Bedford were breathing the fresh air of hope after confirmation that Frank Warren, the boxing promoter, had sold his 90 per cent shareholding to Jefferson Lloyd International, a corporate consultancy with recently acquired interests in other sports, including football. The new owners, who were planning to address the players before this afternoon's home match with Northampton, intend to stay at Goldington Road and, local council willing, bring the ground up to 21st century speed.

"We're not in this for 12 months only, or as long as Bedford stay in the first division," said Gary Woods, an existing director who will sit on a new three-man management board. "It's a serious venture on our part and, while we're not chucking millions at the club, we're committed to success. We're confident of staying in the top flight but, whatever happens, we'll work to keep the existing squad together."

Richmond, meanwhile, were "90 per cent confident" of generating sufficient new money by the end of next month to ensure a future for themselves in the professional game. Currently in financial administration following an abrupt decision by their major backer, Ashley Levett, to drastically reduce his investment, Richmond have just over five weeks to piece together a rescue package.

They know they are treading water in a shark-infested sea; English First Division Rugby, the powerful senior clubs' umbrella organisation, this week discussed the possibility of buying Richmond with a view to pulling the rug from under them. "We are fully determined to retain our independence," said Tony Hallett, the former Richmond chief executive who has coordinated the efforts of club loyalists to find new backing.

There were striking developments at one of Britain's richest clubs yesterday when Cardiff, now nearing the end of their season-long political battle with the Welsh Rugby Union, announced that Terry Holmes would vacate the Arms Park coaching job at the end of the season while only halfway through a two-year contract.