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Rugby Union: Richmond adjust to poorer life after Levett

What happens when the man who pays the bills quits? We will now find out.
AT THE beginning of the season, when Richmond put 40 points on Newcastle in front of a crowd of nearly 10,000 at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, Ashley Levett was happy to put his money where his mouth was.

He had a bet at 14-1 on Richmond winning the Allied Dunbar Premiership. The betting slip is now in the dustbin, along with Levett's more substantial investment in the club, which is estimated at some pounds 6m. A few days ago he abruptly withdrew his support, forcing Richmond into a series of crisis meetings and eventually into administration on Friday evening. Tony Hallett, one of only two directors left on the board, confessed he was "flabbergasted" by the developments.

Last Wednesday Levett and Ben Clarke, the Richmond captain, were at the headquarters of Oracle, the club's main sponsor, meeting the Princess Royal. On Friday Richmond announced they were applying to go into administration, which is another way of describing a lifeline for those thrown in at the deep end. If the application is granted it will give Richmond some time to mount a rescue operation.

Levett, who held 80 per cent of the non-redeemable shares, had cut the purse strings with immediate effect. Those at the club who thought they knew the Monaco-based millionaire reasonably well were stunned by the timing of his decision.

Last weekend Richmond knocked the favourites, Leicester, out of the quarter- finals of the Tetley's Bitter Cup at the Madejski in what was probably their finest hour and a half. Levett was not there to see it. Nor was there any message of congratulation. Somebody should have suspected then that something was wrong.

"The greatest irony," John Kingston, the club's director of rugby said, "is that the man who allowed us to have memorable days like last Saturday no longer wants to be involved with us. It's very, very sad."

Levett, who made his fortune as a copper trader, is one of the entrepreneurs who bought into rugby after the game was thrown open in 1995. As the losses inevitably mounted, so did the frustration of the owners. There was the lack of a properly structured season, which served only to widen the gap between income and expenditure, and interminable rows between the clubs and the governing bodies about fixtures, television income, Europe, indeed virtually everything bar the price of bread.

Levett was also frustrated in his plans to develop the Richmond Athletic Ground, so he struck a deal with Reading football club to share the new Madejski Stadium in Berkshire. "Premiership rugby in the Thames Valley," was the slogan promoted throughout the Royal County and although the crowds were considerably larger than at the Athletic Ground, the royalties remained relatively modest.

Richmond's squad is down to 28 players, its annual wage bill trimmed to pounds 1.5m. Levett knew he could afford to carry on bankrolling Richmond but the fact is he didn't want to. He had lost patience. The club owners are unaccustomed to not getting their way. They are also familiar with making money, not losing it.

When Levett pulled the plug he did not heed the requests of the Richmond die-hards for more time. His monthly injections of cash have stopped. The club asked for a month, or even a week. "For reasons I don't understand but respect," Hallett said, "Ashley is finished with the club in financial terms."

Hallett, a former secretary of the Rugby Football Union who resigned as chief executive of Richmond last November, said he and his supporters were "on a mission to save the club". He added: "If the judge agrees to administration it will give us three months' breathing space during which we can continue to play, run the business and protect the creditors. It will be a very tight ship but we are determined to turn this disaster into a triumph. Members and others have already offered to help. We are in good heart."

There will almost certainly be job losses and salary cuts if Richmond are to survive, at least in the short term, as a fully professional Premiership club. Kingston has already addressed the players, and the board, or what remains of it, will talk to the squad tomorrow.

"Rugby is not like other businesses," Kingston said. "You can only make so many cuts. If you do not have a squad you do not have a business. Four years ago Richmond were bottom of the old Third Division. The club has had a fantastic rise and although I'm massively grateful to Ashley for what he has done it's not all down to money. We have a great young side and if the salvage operation is going to affect the playing staff I'll go off and do something else. I'm not going to stand around to see everything we've built up get ripped down. If a club like Richmond can't get it sorted there's nowhere for rugby to go."

When the Welsh Internationals Scott Quinnell and John Davies left the club, Kingston did not replace them. "Richmond might have this reputation of being a big money-bags club," Kingston said, "but it's not been easy for a year. The club has done nothing wrong and the players feel very let down."

Richmond are not the first and nor will they be the last club to find themselves heading for an iceberg. Bedford, London Scottish and Newcastle have already launched the lifeboats following the withdrawal of funds by their leading benefactors.

Meanwhile, if Richmond are successful in buying time and paying their bills, they have a potentially lucrative cup semi- final to look forward to next month at the Madejski. It should be an even contest: Richmond, without Ashley Levett, against Newcastle, minus Sir John Hall.