Rugby Union: Richmond respond to end of era

COMMENTARY: Richmond 51 Wasps 29

THEY have been chasing after an oval-shaped ball in Richmond since 1861; Queen Victoria was on the throne, Dickens was busy serialising Great Expectations and Wagner was writing operas that would prove more long-winded and contain fewer jokes than a Cliff Brittle discussion document. After meandering along for 130-odd years, the venerable old club has spent the last two seasons securing a future at the expense of its past. Sadly, their Athletic Ground remains locked in a time warp, the bleak and under-developed legacy of another age.

It is the considered opinion of the whiskered, wing-collared Disraelis on the local planning authority that it should stay that way. Workmen move in this week to dismantle the temporary stand and hospitality complex erected by the Richmond management for their first season in the Premiership and it is most unlikely that they will go back up again. "Not only did the planners object to the stand, they also objected to the red seating," said Simon Gillham, the marketing director. "They would have been slightly happier with green. Less loud, apparently."

Hence the seemingly unstoppable momentum towards a change of scenery. Richmond are wading through various sets of particulars - ground shares with Brentford, Fulham and Harlequins have been suggested and are still under consideration - but the favoured option in the committee room is a move to the new 25,000-seater football stadium on the outskirts of Reading.

"It has its merits, certainly," agreed the chief executive, Tony Hallett. "The facilities would be pure state of the art and besides the Reading locality itself, we would be in a prime position to tap into Maidenhead, Newbury and the other Silicon Valley towns. We'll weigh the pros and cons over the next three weeks or so and then consult the membership."

Hallett acknowledges the existence of a gut-wrenching element to the forthcoming process. Richmond would be more than happy to stay in Richmond given an ounce of encouragement from the neighbourhood politicians, if only for the simple reason that the Athletic Ground is so perfectly situated in the heart of the community. "Unfortunately, the economics of the issue dictate that we either develop this ground, which we are finding an impossibility, or we set about nurturing our business elsewhere," he explained.

"I can't give a precise break-even figure for the club but as a general rule of thumb, you need to cover your wage bill with your gate receipts. In our case, we're looking at an average crowd of 7,000. That is a couple of thousand more than our present capacity, even with the doomed temporary seating."

When Ben Clarke and his team took the field against an under-strength Wasps outfit for Saturday's London derby, they knew they were almost certainly placing a shroud over a piece of English rugby history. It was a job best done quickly and consequently, they started at breakneck speed to chalk up a try inside 60 seconds from the first set-piece of the game, Scott Quinnell exchanging smart passes with Agustin Pichot and lolloping over to the left of the posts as fast as his Welsh tree trunks would carry him.

By half-time, the home side were four tries to the good and very nearly over the horizon, Adrian Davies adding to Quinnell's initial effort with the easiest of dawdles through the sloppiest of defences and Matthew Pini crossing twice in four minutes. The Australian full-back's second score was an 80-metre interception effort courtesy of Trevor Leota's embarrassingly public fumble, a faux pas that just about summed up Wasps' afternoon.

It was not that the cup finalists were off the pace; indeed, they were mightily competitive given their decision to field a second-string pack, replacement half-backs and a threequarter line full of recently recovered invalids chasing a place in this weekend's Twickenham showpiece and, by and large, getting in each others' way. They were simply shambolic at the line-out and indisciplined at ruck and maul. With a little more care, they might easily have sneaked it.

As it was, Richmond reached the break precisely two converted tries ahead and then reacted to quick second-half strikes from Peter Scrivener and Andy Gomarsall by slipping up another gear and pulling away into the distance. Allan Bateman was, as usual, bang on the money in midfield and there was an energetic contribution from Adam Vander on the open-side flank, but it was Pichot, their Argentinian scrum-half, who established himself as the game's central figure.

Strange to relate, John Kingston, the Richmond coach, remains in two minds about the 23-year-old Puma. Pichot's performance against Wasps must have clarified matters, however; he possesses a wonderful eye for the half-break, the telling angle, and his slippery style might have been specifically designed to maximise the impact of Clarke, Quinnell and the other big runners in the Londoners' pack. "We'll be reviewing his position over the summer," said Kingston. He should review it now, before some other club takes the liberty of reviewing it for him.

"We set out in search of a top four Premiership finish this season and if a couple of sides do us a favour, we'll achieve it," beamed Clarke, whose current form suggests he might push for an England recall in the southern hemisphere later this month. "In actual fact, we'd be there already but for bad trots in December and February. I think we're beginning to find our way as a side."

Yes, Ben. But can you find your way to Reading?

Richmond: Tries Brown 2, Davies 2, Pini 2, Quinnell, Clarke; Conversions Davies 4; Penalty Davies. Wasps: Tries Roiser, Gomarsall, Scrivener, Black; Conversions Rees 3; Penalty Rees.

Richmond: M Pini; S Brown, A Bateman, J Wright (E Va'a, 51), D Chapman; A Davies, A Pichot; D McFarland (J Davies, 72), B Williams, D Crompton, P Carr, C Gillies, B Clarke (capt), S Quinnell, A Vander.

Wasps: J Ufton; S Roiser, N Greenstock, R Henderson, P Sampson; G Rees (capt), A Gomarsall; A Black, T Leota (D Alexopoulos, 66), I Dunston, D Cronin (S Shaw, 60), A Reed, J Worsley (P Volley, 27), P Scrivener, M White.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).

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