Rugby union: Roadshow stars of Richmond

Tim Glover joins the rugby men on a journey that gave grounds for optimism
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The Independent Online
AS pre-season friendlies go it had all the warmth and subtlety of a Glasgow kiss. Richmond do not open their assault on the Allied Dunbar Premiership, against champions Newcastle, until 5 September but they have already hit the ground running. They had no option.

On Tuesday night they played Glasgow Caledonians at Hughenden and there was nothing friendly about it. Before the game, John Kingston, the Richmond coach, said he didn't give "a monkey's" about the result. Not so. After Richmond, impressively led by Ben Clarke, one of the few successes on England's fated tour, had won a competitive match 32-24 against one of Scotland's two newly- formed super teams, Kingston was sufficiently involved to have words with the referee, Jim Fleming.

Kingston, a no-frills Geordie who calls a spade a shovel, is not easily impressed, at least not publicly. Keith Robertson, the Glasgow coach and a New Zealander, said: "Richmond showed greater cohesion having been together longer. They demonstrated that you must run straight, run hard and hit hard. They have given us a benchmark."

On Friday evening Richmond played Scotland's other super team, Edinburgh Reivers and completed a satisfactory week with a 43-17 victory.

Two years ago, Richmond's pre-season get-together was in Agen; last year it was Dublin; and last week it was at Jury's Hotel, Glasgow. "The amount of food they get through is incredible," said a waitress. "If they ask for a banana they don't take one, they take the whole bunch."

One of the points of the exercise, apart from building team spirit, is to see how the new players blend in. One of them is the Frenchman, Laurent Cabannes, a player Kingston believes will provide a missing link between the backs and the forwards. It was after a disastrous match with Harlequins, Cabannes' former club, last season that Richmond got down to business. "It was time for some home truths," Dr Ian Maynard, the club's psychologist, said. "The forwards were asked to talk about the backs and the backs about the forwards. The main complaint from the forwards is that the backs had to vary their alignment and bring the full-back and the wings more into play. The backs thought the forwards had to get fitter and be more in the face of the opposition. We have worked on fitness, diet and the idea is to train as we play, with more intensity and aggression."

Maynard, a former Saracens fly-half who has worked with world champions in seven sports, has a mantra: control the controllable. "You can't control the opposition, the referee or the weather. What you can control is your own performance. It's not just about motivation, that kind of crap. The players know it's no longer fun, it's their job."

Before travelling to Scotland, Richmond had a six-week stint with the fitness coach, Tim Exeter: running, weights, speed work, ball handling and finally physical contact. Three key Welshmen in the squad are injured - Scott Quinnell, brother Craig and the centre Allan Bateman. They and others in the team have tended to be ignored by the WRU and one of the first messages Graham Henry, Wales's new New Zealand coach, will have received is a fax from Kingston notifying him of Richmond's strong Celtic presence.

If the jury on the quality of the hotel is still out - one prop fills an elevator - the spirit in the camp is good. "The opposition is stronger than we thought it would be," Mark Tainton, Kingston's assistant, admitted, "but it's been a testing ground and we have a better idea of where we are." Tainton took time out to watch Rangers FC train. "It was very, very professional. In support play and cover they tend to move as one and their ball skills are tremendous."

Richmond will meet Newcastle not at the Athletic Ground, their home for more than 100 years, and where they have been thwarted in attempts to develop the facilities, but at the new Madejski Stadium, a 25,000- seater state of the art ground off junction 11 of the M4. They have entered into a partnership with Reading FC and, but for such a deal, Ashley Levett, Richmond's benefactor in chief, would almost certainly have cut his losses and run. There will be a blitz to find bums to fill seats throughout the Thames Valley.

In Glasgow the PR team have a great idea for a poster campaign: "We have a sunrise image against a silhouette of the new stadium. The tone of the image of the players in the foreground is `moody, menacing, powerful, emotive'. The expectation is the rugby action will be the same."

Alex Codling, a promising lock, doesn't quite fit the image. He lost a bet with the Argentine scrum-half Agustin Pichot over the result of the England-Argentina match in the World Cup and had to dye his hair. It was supposed to be blue and white but it has come out punk orange.

When Tony Hallett, the chief executive, arrives in Glasgow hot-foot from business meetings, he has bad news and good news. The former is that the senior clubs, having boycotted the Heineken European Cup,failed in an 11th-hour attempt to create an alternative theatre in Europe. "We had a limited opportunity to succeed but we didn't try hard enough," Hallett said. Without the English, who objected to the structure and the fact that they weren't controlling the purse-strings, the European Cup is seriously undermined and Hallett doubts the financial commitment of either Sky or Heineken. The good news is that tickets sales for the new season have been brisk enough to warrant extra telephone lines in Richmond's offices.