Rugby Union: Fresh hope for tortured Richmond

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THE BANK of England sports ground seems an ironic choice of training venue given the financial straits in which Richmond found themselves a month or so ago - circumstances grave enough to force the club to go into administration and cut back their staffing levels and wage bill.

It will not sort out their cash problems, but the Richmond players certainly seemed happy enough, carefree even, at their adopted headquarters in Roehampton, south-west London, as they completed preparations for the biggest match in the club's history, the Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final against Newcastle at Reading's Madejski Stadium tomorrow.

It is a stage further than Richmond have ever been before in the knock- out competition and they want victory badly. "This is a very important match to us," insisted their Argentinian scrum-half, Agustin Pichot. "We have had problems with our form in the league, there has been the problems off the pitch and players having to leave, so the Cup represents a chance for us to put some things right."

John Kingston, the club's director of rugby, admitted: "I am excited about it. The pressure of the off-field problems has eased now. I think it will be an enjoyable occasion. The problems that we have had have been publicised for the last month or so, but in reality it has been an extremely tough world for us for the last year or so.

"We have been disposing of players rather than acquiring them. It has come to the fore with going into administration and the sadness of that but we had already reached a point where the recruiting had to stop. We had a wage cap on our players long before it became a topic of discussion and policy among the rest of the Premiership clubs."

According to Kingston, adversity has had a positive effect on everyone in his charge. "I have recruited 60 or 70 players in my five years at Richmond. I have made some mistakes, but the most important thing to me, over and above the obvious quality of ability, is the character of the player. I have a bunch of people who want to play for Richmond. When you get a kick in the bollocks from life it tends to pull you together more."

Which is what has happened at Richmond. Pichot explained: "The recent situation has helped the players. It has revealed another side of everyone in the squad - the human side and that is very important for the team."

As a measure of the kind of spirit that has been engendered at the club you only had to see Adrian Davies helping with the training, just a couple of days after a visit to the dole office. "Adrian personifies the spirit of Richmond," Kingston said. "Don't let anyone tell you there is dissent in the ranks here, because it ain't so. We respect each other and work hard for each other.

"Jim Hamilton-Smith was on the bench last weekend for the Harlequins match. He is another of the players we made redundant. Yet he wanted to be there. I paid him out of my own pocket."

And before the vultures start gathering, looking for scrapped contracts, they would be well advised not waste their time. By all accounts the players want to stay where they are. Kingston explained: "The players have actually come to me and said, 'So-and-so has been on the phone [and these are Premier league clubs], what do you want me to say John?' I say, `It's your life. You are out of contract.' They tell me they don't want to go. So I say to them, `Tell the clubs that you want to wait to see what happens here first.' "

Pichot is a fine example. His contract comes up for renewal at the end of next month and he is going to have to confront the prospect of leaving. "I don't want to walk away from Richmond. I have been through hard times and good times with the club. They gave me a chance. But I am 24, I have a long career ahead of me and I want to be sure where I am going to spend the next four years. At the moment it is too early for me to make a decision. But I don't want to leave."

Perhaps, if they reach the final, and, whisper it, win the Cup, things would be rosier on the financial front. Kingston, ever the pragmatist, dismisses the notion. "Frankly I don't think there is that much money to be had in getting to the final," he said. "The cash is spread around." No, Kingston is not looking beyond tomorrow.

"It is wonderful to have reached the semi-final," he said. "Four years ago we were bottom of the Third and we had to beat Blackheath to avoid relegation to the Fourth Division. That's pressure. I am very proud of what we have achieved. I feel Richmond have never stopped going upwards since I have been at the club.

"This is obviously a great opportunity, but even if things do not go well for us on Saturday, then I have to be reflective about it. After all, we can still finish sixth or seventh in the league." And negotiating a passage to the final around Newcastle is no easy task.

Kingston acknowledged: "Newcastle are a hard, uncompromising bunch. And they didn't get the credit they deserved for winning the league last year. You talk about rises. For them, for anybody who comes out of Division Two and then to succeed is very hard. So for them to win the league last year, I think, was just unbelievable."

Kingston, being a North-easterner, feels things a little more keenly than most when it comes to trying to bring down the Falcons. "The rivalry goes back to our days in the Second Division. But there is always an edge for me when we play each other, with it being my homeland, as it were. I get up for it, maybe the players realise that and they get more up for these games as well.

"But while they are a good side, they do not hold any fears for us. We know about them. We have beaten them well the last two times we have played them. We will respect them, but that is where it will stop."