Rugby Union: Richmond's ground for optimism

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RICHMOND WERE not even allowed to set foot on the grass of their new ground when they visited it yesterday. They may have thought they had done well when they decided to up sticks and head west in search of rugby fortune. After the trials, tribulations and thorough bloody-mindedness of Richmond Borough Council, who seemed to block the club's every plan to take their decrepit and run down Athletic Ground headquarters into the 21st Century, a deal to share Reading Football Club's magnificently appointed pounds 37m Madejski Stadium seemed the perfect solution. And it probably still is.

But there were one or two shocked faces when first their Wales international lock, Craig Quinnell, then their chief executive, Tony Hallett, were each in turn told, in no uncertain manner to "get off the grass" by the protective groundsman.

They did so pdq. And who can blame them? After all the condition of the pitch is vital. And if there is any unnecessary or gratuitous damage it is likely that the work to make it good again will mean a rise in their rent. Since that is around pounds 15,000 per match day there is little likelihood of Richmond wanting to see any hike in it for a while. And, anyway, they were not the only ones not allowed on the grass. The presence of a falconer and his Harris Hawk ensured that not even a pigeon could set foot on the hallowed turf.

It has to be said that Richmond have themselves a stunning facility. The marketing department must be salivating at the prospect of selling corporate hospitality and tables in the exclusive 120-seat restaurant. In comparison with their previous facilities this is Super League.

As their millionaire backer Ashley Levett said: "In the professional era Richmond at the Athletic Ground was a dead duck." He added: "One of the sorriest sights for me last winter came on one of the coldest nights of the year. We had an evening match with Leicester. We had had problems arranging the fixture as it was. Then it began raining at half-time and people began leaving the ground. We had tried and failed to get planning permission to put up a cover on a temporary stand and to see everyone going at that point, that was the last straw for me. I knew we had to move."

It turned out to be a canny move. Their main sponsors are software giants Oracle, whose UK headquarters are on a nearby industrial park. The proximity prompted Oracle's bosses to renew their contract with the club a year ahead of schedule. As a result Richmond have landed a pounds 1.5m windfall in a three-year deal.

Whether they can coax the hard core membership to ferry their allegiance the 40-odd miles along the M4 is still to be ascertained. "The uptake of season tickets is about half what we finished up with last year," Hallett admitted, "while the membership interest is also at about 50 per cent." Hallett predicted that season ticket sales and membership would be up on last year once people have come along to view their awesome new setting.

There are plans to bus people from the Athletic Ground to the Madejski Stadium where they can watch a collection of seriously competitive players. Seven summer signings include New South Wales centre Matt Dixon, Ireland A lock Brian Cusack, from Bath, and wing Nick Walne, a Cambridge Blue. Laurent Cabannes, 34, the former France flanker, has joined from Harlequins. He promised he will be at his best. "Since this is going to be my last season in top flight rugby I should like to win something."

Provided they are allowed on the grass there is every prospect of some silverware appearing at the Madejski Stadium.