Rugby Union: Walkinshaw getting away with merger

Tim Glover mourns the demise of two famous names of the union
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The Independent Online
HEARD THE one about the Irish, the English and the Scots? In this story it is the Irishmen who emerge as the brains behind a professional rugby coup of breathtaking audacity. On Tuesday, England's Premiership clubs are expected to rubber- stamp a "merger" between London Irish, Richmond and London Scottish. In the eyes of Richmond and London Scots it is a merger most foul.

Under the terms of the deal, London Irish will be the senior partner but that is an understatement. The "new" club will be called London Irish and only a handful of players from Richmond and London Scottish will be added to the present Irish squad. The rest will be made redundant. What has prompted this unholy alliance is, of course, money.

English First Division Rugby, under the chairmanship of Tom Walkinshaw, is hell-bent on reducing the number of clubs in the Premiership from 14 to 12 and have put pounds 1.5m on the table for the three west London rivals to become one.

By comparison to the Irish, who own 19 acres of prime development land at Sunbury (bought in 1934 for pounds 1,340), the others are impoverished. Richmond went into administration in March when their Monaco-based backer Ashley Levett took his cheque book away after losing pounds 8m, and the Scots suffered withdrawal symptoms when their Monaco- based financier, Tony Tiarks, stopped investing. Scottish would almost certainly have gone into administration but for Tiarks selling part of the club to Bristol, who saw a takeover as an insurance policy for Premiership rugby had they failed to win promotion. Bristol have been paying the Scottish bills.

A merger between Richmond and London Scottish - they used to be co-tenants at the Athletic Ground, which is now being sought by Ken Bates as a training ground for Chelsea FC - has not been seen by EFDR as a realistic proposition. Last week John Kingston, the Richmond coach, resigned when EFDR refused to give the club further breathing space in its attempts at reconstruction.

Walkinshaw had already threatened to exercise an option of buying Richmond for pounds 1 which exacerbated the club's problems. In any case amalgamation between Richmond and the Scottish would still leave the Premiership with 13 clubs.

The new deal solves that problem, although it in effect means the demise, in professional terms, of two of the oldest clubs in the game. "We have been stitched up," Tony Dorman, the president of Richmond, who were established in 1861 and were founder members of the RFU, said."By fair means or foul the others have got what they wanted and we've been kicked into touch. What is alarming is that the RFU have shown no teeth at all in allowing this to happen."

The plan is for London Irish to have 51 per cent of the new club, London Scottish 34 and Richmond 15. Levett, who owns 86 per cent of the shares in Richmond, wants Richmond's share to be increased to 25 per cent. He also wanted the Madejski Stadium in Reading, where Richmond played their home matches, to be the club's venue but has found himself marginalised. EFDR have been dealing less with Levett and more with Richmond's administrators.

As planned, London Irish will share the Stoop at Twickenham with Harlequins next season. In the new management team Richmond and London Scottish may have one representative apiece. The director of rugby will be Dick Best and the senior coach Andy Keast, his assistant at London Irish. The club jerseys will be two-tone green.

London Irish, who have lost pounds 3m in three years (relatively modest compared to others), have 700 shareholders. The mistake of Richmond and London Scottish was in putting all their eggs in one basket. They also overspent, paying players six- figure salaries with low-figure crowds.

Walkinshaw, who made his name in Formula One and is the main shareholder at Gloucester, is determined to rationalise the Premiership, and he may not stop at 12 clubs. There could be a further reduction to 10.

Next season no club will be allowed to invest more than pounds 1.8m in a squad. At the moment five clubs are in excess of that. Independent auditors will carry out checks and any club in breach of a salary cap will suffer a financial penalty, paying pounds 3 to every pounds 1 over the limit. If somebody has overspent by pounds 100,000 they will be fined pounds 300,000. Had the Irish qualified for the European Cup they estimate they would have broken even next season.

As it is, using the databases of Richmond and London Scottish, they hope to fill the Stoop (capacity 10,000) at every home game. Last season the Irish had 13 matches at Sunbury, eight of which coincided with home games for Quins.

Richmond, who own 150 debentures at Twickenham (a valuable asset in World Cup year), have formed a new company, Richmond Vikings Limited, and are still talking to potential investors. One possibility is a return to the Athletic Ground to run an amateur club and youth section, which is what they were doing for 135 years before the lemming-like rush into professionalism. "What is happening is disgusting," Dorman said. "A return to amateurism might be a breath of fresh air."

Meanwhile, Richmond's sponsors Oracle, the computer giants who are based at Reading, who backed them with half a million pounds, are pointing out to EFDR that their behaviour has harmed the image of the game and has done nothing to attract sponsors.

There is, it seems, only one black spot for the Irish, who will not inherit the debts of their partners. They will receive a percentage of the bar takings at the Stoop, where Quins are contracted to sell Murphy's Irish Stout. London Irish are synonymous with Guinness, one of their backers. The takeover, perhaps, is not quite lock, stock and barrel after all.