Rugby Union: Richmond take their fight to law

Tim Glover discovers that the merger battle is far from over
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The Independent Online
WHILE WONDERING whether they will be in business next season as Richmond or as a hybrid with London Scottish, the world's third-oldest club were being stripped of some of their assets. Last week Northampton made a move for Allan Bateman, Richmond's Wales and British Lions centre. The fee? Nothing. On the face of it Bateman's decision to sign a two-year contract when the Saints came marching in is a logical move, given the uncertainty over Richmond's future.

"The whole thing's been a nightmare," Bateman said. "I've had a fabulous time at Richmond but I've got to look after myself and my family." Craig Quinnell had already jumped ship, joining Cardiff, after discovering that he was owed pounds 6,000, two months' non-payment of his pension.

When Richmond went into administration in March following the decision of Ashley Levett suddenly to cut his losses (pounds 4.5m), the squad took a 20 per cent pay cut. It hurt, but nobody complained. What stretched Bateman's loyalty was the threat by English First Division Rugby, the body representing the 14 clubs in the Premiership, to kill off Richmond, and London Scottish, and so reduce the number of clubs in the league.

"If EFDR hadn't done this appalling thing I wouldn't have left," Bateman said. He joined the club from rugby league in 1996 on a three-year contract which was subsequently extended by another year. Northampton, who offered to buy Bateman for pounds 100,000 a few months ago, have paid nothing because the Richmond players who are on the move claim that, since going into administration, the club are in breach of contract and therefore they are free agents. Richmond still hold Bateman's registration and as far as they are concerned the matter is not closed.

Bateman, who also had offers from four Welsh clubs, left on Wales's tour to Argentina last night and said that he felt compelled to safeguard his future before leaving for South America. "If the EFDR had lifted their threat I would have stayed," Bateman said, "but I couldn't wait any longer. I had to cover myself but it's an awful situation. There are a lot of heavy hearts at the club."

Tony Dorman, the Richmond president, said of Bateman: "He's the last person we want to see go. We had a meeting with the players last week and their reaction was amazing. The majority want to stay but it's hard to function with the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head."

Richmond's future will be decided at a meeting of the EFDR at Twickenham on Tuesday. The administrators, tempted by a pounds 500,000 EFDR offer to secure a merger with London Scottish, say they are making "very good headway" towards such a deal. However, it would mean selling the lease of the Athletic Ground where both clubs train and where their amateur teams play. John Steele, the Exiles' director of rugby, is all for the formation of Richmond-Scottish. "It would create a strong squad and a competitive professional club," he said. "What else is there?"

Richmond, founded 138 years ago, will fiercely oppose a merger. They will present to the EFDR pledges of considerable financial support that will enable them to move out of administration and to survive independently. "We are in a position to satisfy the creditors but the threat has to be lifted and we must be given the chance to finish our reconstruction," a spokesman said.

"What can London Scottish bring to the table? If we merge we will lose our ground, our name, our identity. We have a strong case on emotional, moral and legal grounds." If Richmond lose the case, which has prompted a motion in the House of Commons, they will almost certainly take EFDR to court. EFDR want a smaller Premiership not only for commercial reasons but to ease fixture congestion when the English clubs return to Europe. Richmond argue that such a reduction would be in breach of the Mayfair Agreement.

For London Scottish, a merger seems to be the lesser of two evils. Bristol own 24 per cent of the Exiles and could exercise an option to buy them outright and sell the club to EFDR. If that happens it is the Scottish, whose ground-sharing with Harlequins at the Stoop has been supplanted by London Irish and whose bills are currently being paid by Bristol, who will be sold down the Thames.