Rugby Union: The word is cannibalism

Merger Most Foul: The last part of the exclusive inside story of the fall of a famous club; John Kingston, Richmond's former coach, relives the dramatic moments when his club was sentenced to death
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The Independent Online
THE DECISION of Ashley Levett, Richmond's benefactor, to withdraw his support abruptly was one thing. The actions of English First Division Rugby, the Allied Dunbar Premiership's umbrella organisation, were something else. We needed time to rebuild, instead they saw our predicament as a way of finishing us off. We knew we were in trouble when Tony Dorman, our president, attended a meeting of the clubs at the gourmet restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire. Although Nigel Wray, the owner of Saracens, paid for the wine, Dorman got the distinct impression he was at the Last Supper.

The weekend of 15-16 May was a rare break from the turmoil. It was just like the good old days. On the Saturday, before a big crowd at the Athletic Ground, Richmond Academy beat Saracens in the final of the national Under- 21 cup. This was proof that we were developing young talent. The following day, against a weakened Bedford (they were saving themselves for the play- off) we set a Premiership record with a victory of 106-12. What would have been a cause for celebration was replaced by a mood of great sadness as the players realised this would probably be their last game for the club. That night, in our spiritual home, the Sun Inn in the heart of Richmond, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

On Tuesday 18 May, the administrators called a players' meeting, which Ashley attended. He proposed a merger with London Scottish but made no reference to his actions of the previous month, which had left the club on its knees. Some of the players reminded him of the promise he'd made when he took over the club, that he'd never leave Richmond in a worse state than he found it.

The crunch meeting on the club's future was with EFDR at Twickenham on 25 May and I was working like a candidate before an election, canvassing support. If Richmond and the Scottish were to be denied a vote, we needed eight in our corner for the necessary two-thirds majority to win the day. Five clubs told me they would support us.

As I walked into the meeting, which was held below Twickenham's West Stand, I remember thinking that some of my finest sporting moments had been in this stadium and now I was fighting for something a hell of a lot more significant.

There were 30 people around a massive table and I nodded nervously to Mark Evans of Saracens and Peter Wheeler of Leicester who were sitting opposite me. To my right was Nick de Scossa, a guy I'd never met but had rung on numerous occasions. He never returned a call. I'd wanted to talk to him, not only because he was the chief executive of Bristol but his club had a stake in London Scottish.

Tony Hallett, Richmond's representative, tried to reason directly with the chairman, Tom Walkinshaw, to lift the threat of buying us out. Walkinshaw was in no mood for pleasantries. He immediately struck me as being highly aggressive and used to getting his own way. He addressed Tony as "Hallett" and told the former secretary of the RFU that he was going over old ground, to stop whingeing and get the merger in place. He said there were at least two clubs in the room keen to work with Richmond. Clearly he'd already had talks with London Irish and the gameplan was for the Irish to take over Richmond and Scottish. Three would become one and the Premiership reduced from 14 to 12. To some this was the Holy Grail now that England were back in Europe, and in a World Cup year. Walkinshaw was dismissive of Tony. Heath Sinclair, one of our administrators, managed to point out that our creditors would benefit if Richmond was allowed to finish its reconstruction.

And that was going to be that. Walkinshaw is big in Formula One motor racing but had been involved in rugby for only a couple of years after taking over Gloucester. I was damned if I was going to let him seal the fate of the world's third oldest club without saying something. I turned to him. "You don't know me..." "Oh, but I do," he replied.

I asked the members if they'd seen our presentation, which had been sent to all the clubs. There was silence. Taking that as a yes, I asked if anybody had any questions. Again silence. I emphasised the key issues. Investors had pledged large sums to Richmond - one was offering pounds 1m - provided we retained Premiership status. I offered to show Walkinshaw the documents. He declined.

In a press release, EFDR had said the purpose of Richmond going into administration was to avoid its obligations to creditors. I said that the reverse was true. EFDR's response, to revoke Richmond's share, had no legal foundation and was in breach of binding agreements. The Premiership had been expanded from 12 to 14 to protect Bristol and London Irish. A reduction from 14 to 12 could be achieved with three clubs relegated and one promoted. That would be fairer and cheaper. We had a lot to lose in a merger. We had the team, the ground, the sponsors, the support - the highest percentage increase in the Premiership - and the youth structure. We'd earned our Premiership place on the field. Several clubs in the Second Division had gone into administration without the threat of closure.

When I'd finished we asked if Ben Clarke, the Richmond captain, could speak. Walkinshaw rejected the idea. "We don't need players in here," he said. Ben remained outside. Walkinshaw thanked me but added that EFDR were in agreement and nothing was going to change. "Hang on," I said. "We've heard nothing from anybody else."

"Oh, you want a vote do you?" Walkinshaw replied. "Is there anyone here who has a problem?" Silence.

"That's not a vote," I said.

Walkinshaw: "John, you're only here at my discretion. You're not a Richmond representative."

I started to leave. Paul Mackins of Newcastle, said: "Tom, I just want to say Newcastle were not part of any vote on this..." He was cut off by Walkinshaw. "No problem. Anyone else? OK, that's unanimous."

As I was halfway out of the room, Nigel Wray and Peter Wheeler were trying to offer a few empty words about not wanting Richmond killed off, but with EFDR as judge and jury that's exactly what happened. We all knew it was the end. In a show of self-interest, the clubs had swallowed one of their own. The word I was looking for was cannibalism.

It was Howard Thomas, chief executive of EFDR, who had told me Richmond needed a two-thirds majority vote to reverse the decision. He said there had been three unanimous votes on the subject yet nowhere in the minutes is there evidence of a vote having ever been taken. EFDR were entitled to buy the share of a club that had gone into administration "other than for the purpose of reconstruction or amalgamation". Reconstruction was our priority and we were well on the way.

Bedford wrote to me and apologised for saying nothing. They feared they would be next. Richmond thought about legal action but it would have cost pounds 200,000. In any case, the players needed to know quickly whether we were in business or not. Some are now considering legal action of their own.

The following day the administrators called a meeting at the Athletic Ground and announced further redundancies. There was a roll call and my name was read out. We stepped forward to collect our P45s. There was no compensation. Some names were held back so the club could at least field a team in the Middlesex Sevens that weekend. Then they would be sacked. Ashley was at the meeting and was clearly not aware of the Irish take- over. He was upbeat, announcing plans for a merger between Richmond and Scottish. It fell on deaf ears. He said John Steele would be director of rugby - 24 hours earlier he'd offered me the job - with Ben captain. Ben sat with his head in his hands. He didn't have a clue what Ashley was talking about and said he didn't want any part of it. Everybody felt the same. They had been remarkably loyal, refusing to jump ship until they knew it was lost. I had a final word with the players and just about held off the tears. It was a sad way to end a love affair that had lasted eight years. I felt shattered.

Tony Tiarks, a Monaco-based investor who had left London Scottish in as big a mess as Ashley had left us, had been talking to London Irish and in a three-way "merger", Richmond would be the junior partner with 15 per cent. The so-called super club, which will share The Stoop, benefited financially from the deal but nothing else has changed. The RFU not only oversaw the transaction but supported it. Richmond was a founder member of the RFU. Some union. Geoff Read, chairman of London Irish, said his club "were pleased to have acted as a catalyst in securing a professional future for Richmond. The new squad would consist of players from all three teams and we will reflect the traditions of these great clubs."

Dick Best, director of rugby at the Irish, failed to sign Ben, who went back to Bath. One Scottish player, Rob Hunter, joined the Irish but not a single player from Richmond made the move. Even if they'd wanted to, which they didn't, there was no room for them.

There was no merger. Richmond and London Scottish were sacrificed, although the amateur tradition, born in 1861, will continue at the Athletic Ground. The famous colours of old gold, red and black live on.

Some of my players went to France, Italy and Wales although Bristol took more than most. I could have stayed in the Premiership but accepted an offer to coach Galwegians in the west of Ireland. I needed a breath of fresh air.

Interview: Tim Glover