Rugby Union: Thames spawns cyber heroes

COMMENTARY: Richmond 41 Newcastle 29
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Richmond 41 Newcastle 29

WE LIVE in the age of the nickname; the Allied Dunbar Premiership is inhabited not only by Falcons and Tigers, but by Saints and Tykes and Lions. And now we have the Silicon Implants. Richmond kicked off the new campaign as dark horses for the title, but so effortlessly did they snuggle into their cyber-spacious surroundings down in M4 microchip country that it took them rather less than 80 minutes to transform themselves into the first racing certainties of the season. No wonder Ashley Levett, their owner, has invested pounds 20,000 with the nearest bookmaker.

The Implants' performance was, how shall we say, uplifting, just as poor old Newcastle sagged embarrassingly, their protective elastic not so much overstretched as twanged into oblivion. Outpaced, outmanoeuvred and outsmarted by snappier, hungrier opponents, they were made to look their years, which now total a very considerable number indeed. Rob Andrew, their thirtysomething head cook and bottlewasher, insisted there were "no big issues" to confront as a result of the startlingly one-sided events at Reading's Madejski Stadium, but many more afternoons like this will leave him selling Big Issues rather than addressing them.

Not so very long ago, similarly scandalous notions were being peddled about John Kingston, the Richmond coach, and Ben Clarke, their No 8 and captain. A "quite disgraceful" capitulation - Kingston's description - against Harlequins last spring prompted a swathe of speculation he had wandered fatally into bum's rush territory, while Clarke was dismissed as an international relic, his England future firmly behind him. Since when Kingston has seen his side win seven Premiership matches on the bounce at an average of 40 points, while Clarke has planted himself so firmly in Clive Woodward's World Cup back row it will take a mechanical excavator to dig him out again.

"I was fairly flabbergasted to read a few months ago that my job was under threat, but I'd have worried a whole lot more had I heard it from any one of the people actually employing me," said Kingston, delicious irony oozing from every utterance. "I happen to think there were other Premiership coaches more deserving of the stick I received from the press, but perhaps they were too high profile a target. It may be an unfashionable view, but I see my job as organising this rugby club rather than giving five million interviews to the papers, and, on that score, I think I know what I'm doing." Ouch. Enough. Point taken.

Unlike Newcastle, who last season found themselves embroiled in a balls- out scrap for the silverware at their first attempt, Kingston has gone about his business with a minimum of hullabaloo. "You don't put these things together in five seconds, not if you want it to last. When we arrived in the Premiership last year, I'd never coached at that level and no-one apart from Ben had played there on a weekly basis. I wanted to build gradually, construct on firm foundations, and had we finished seventh or eighth, I'd have been happy enough. As it was, we finished fifth. I don't call that under-achievement."

There were stirrings in the undergrowth even so, not least when Richmond put 30 on the Falcons at the old Athletic Ground in March. This time, with very nearly 10,000 curious Thames Valley customers thronging two sides of Reading FC's gleaming new abode, they rattled up six tries, one of them an absolute pearl, and might easily have swanned past the half- century mark. The champions were 41-15 adrift with eight minutes left and, but for Kingston's decision to remove Craig Quinnell from a forward confrontation he was dominating almost as comprehensively as his captain, would have suffered further indignities.

If Quinnell had sufficient devil about him to land an audition for the next Stephen King movie - the Welshman impressed his new national coach, Graham Henry, by giving Dean Ryan an unfamiliar hurry-up in the hard nut stakes - Clarke simply reproduced his magisterial summer tour form, his close-quarter work nothing short of world class. Richmond's set-pieces were also a cut above the average mustard; Newcastle's pensionable front row took a hiding from Darren Crompton and had no idea how to repel the line-out drives that earned Robbie Hutton a brace of second-half tries.

All that forward dominance gave Agustin Pichot, Richmond's dashing Argentinian scrum-half, the sort of space usually found only in the Patagonian hinterland. He used it exquisitely, scampering on to Clarke's shoulder for a 29th minute finish, before slipping away from Andrew, simultaneously pulling in Gary Armstrong and Jonny Wilkinson, to create the try of the match for Allan Bateman. "Agustin wasn't quite ready mentally last season," said Kingston, defending his distinctly dodgy decision to ignore the Puma's talents for much of the Premiership programme. He is seriously ready now, that's for sure.

Just as the untapped rugby audience of Reading is ready. Ready for more of Pichot's artistry, Quinnell's hostility, Clarke's heart-on-the-sleeve honesty. These are exciting times for Richmond and, while the season is precisely one weekend old, it does not take a high-tech whizz kid from Silicon Valley to detect that here is a moment waiting to be seized.

Richmond: Tries Hutton 2, Clarke, Pichot, Bateman, Brown; Conversions Davies 4; Penalty Davies. Newcastle: Tries Naylor, Walton, Tuigamala, Weir; Conversions Andrew 2, Wilkinson; Penalty Wilkinson.

Richmond: M Pini; S Brown, A Bateman, M Deane, D Chapman; A Davies (E Va'a,73), A Pichot; D McFarland, B Williams, D Crompton (J Davies, 66), C Quinnell (A Codling,73, A Cuthbert, 77), C Gillies, R Hutton (L Cabannes, 64), B Clarke (capt), A Vander.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, V Tuigamala, R Andrew, T Underwood; J Wilkinson (P Massey, 64), G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale, G Graham, G Archer, G Weir, S O'Neil, D Ryan (capt), R Arnold (P Walton, h-t).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

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