Rugby Union: London takeover may end in court

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The Independent Online
IT IS NOT over until the Fat Cats sing, but it is as good as read that English rugby will today have its first Super Club.

London Irish's takeover - it would be fanciful to call it a merger - of London Scottish and Richmond is expected to be announced by English First Division Rugby this morning. And, subject to approval by the game's governing body in this country, the Rugby Football Union, on Monday, the Allied Dunbar Premiership Division One will comprise just 12 clubs from next season.

EFDR has eventually got its way and the financial strugglers in this hard-nosed professional era have been picked off. But whether putting them out of their financial misery will put Richmond and London Scottish out of mind and existence altogether is another matter.

Already late yesterday a cadre of stunned committee men and long-standing members were drawing up contingency plans and looking at the possibility of litigation against EFDR to try to keep their place in the Premiership going into the next millennium.

The reality is likely to be that they will remain a part of the game but only in an amateur capacity. If the takeover gets the thumbs-up from Twickenham, the new club will be known as London Irish, but will take on Scottish's ground-sharing arrangement at Harlequins' Stoop Memorial Ground. However, the 50 or so old farts (as Will Carling once dubbed them) are likely to insist that the two unfortunates - and, after all, Richmond were founder members of the RFU - retain their membership of the Union.

There were even rumoured to be last-ditch talks taking place last night in a bid to try to keep the Richmond name alive in the new Super Club but that is unlikely to meet with any success.

If a hard core at Richmond is so determined, however, then the whole issue of the takeover-merger could get dragged through the courts. The die-hards are likely to claim that last year's Mayfair Agreement has been breached as far as the reduction of the Premiership from 14 to 12 clubs goes. It is further felt that Richmond have been, in the words of one of their number, "shafted" while trying to put their financial affairs in order by going into administration.

That stance could well earn a sympathy vote and it is believed that the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, has asked to be kept apprised of developments as and when they arise.

The point of the takeover, though, is that it will sort out the financial mess. Each of the three clubs will be granted pounds 500,000 by EFDR and that will take care of the outstanding debt to Tony Tiarks, the former backer of Scottish, as well as paying off the contracts of players surplus to requirements at the Super Club.

It is believed that Ashley Levett, who ploughed a few million pounds into Richmond, has earmarked around half-a-million pounds - part of the pounds 2.2m received from the sale of the Athletic Ground lease to Chelsea Football Club - to ensure that the name Richmond will continue, albeit in an amateur capacity.

Whether that will appease the disaffected remains to be seen. But this is yet another product of the appalingly handled age of professionalism that promises to run and run.