Had events taken a different course, this venerable patch of rugby turf might have been playing host to John Terry, Frank Lampard and the like. Chelsea tried to buy the Athletic Ground, where a ball was first thrown around long before Twickenham was built, when Richmond - the professional version circa 1999 - went bust. But the men in the old gold, black and red did not give up that easily. Richmond lost the battle to win yesterday's play-off and return to the National Leagues, but they have long since won the war of survival.
Sad though it was that the interest of the copper dealer Ashley Levett rusted over, and Richmond together with London Scottish suffered a rude demise as full-time operations, there were two amateur clubs left to carry the torch, albeit a chastening distance below the Premiership. Richmond warded off Chelsea's multi-million pound offer to the administrators, regrouped magnificently to win four promotions and found themselves this year as runners-up in London One, earning the right to fight Clifton, their counterparts in South West One.
"It wasn't right for the RFU to chuck us nine leagues down," said Tony Hallett, the Richmond president and one of the prime movers in their renaissance. "Paradoxically, though, we have enjoyed the experience." As a past secretary at Twickenham, Hallett knows all about rugby politics.
Relegation at several levels was abandoned last month and there was the faintest rumour, now scotched, of further restructuring which might raise Richmond despite this defeat.
Still, their minis, juniors, under-21s and women are thriving. And even on a bank holiday weekend with Harlequins just down the road staging their union-league double-header to a full house there were more than 1,000 spectators, including 130 for lunch in the function rooms which help keep the club afloat with a turnover of around £400,000. Central funding from the RFU is a princely £4,200.
Richmond had received good luck messages by telephone and email from Agustin Pichot, Ben Clarke and Darren Crompton. Each was a member of Richmond's squad who finished fifth in the Premiership in 1998, and they have not forgotten, though the latter-day star turn, the ex-Springbok captain Bobby Skinstad, has lent only moral support since Christmas. Proof that bygones can be bygones was Levett's attendance at an away match earlier in the season.
No Terry or Lampard, then, but Clifton did have a John Barnes at No 10: a buzzing flea of a fly-half who kicked Richmond to a different kind of demise with two drop goals and a penalty in the first half, and another drop in the 74th minute. In between Richmond had clawed back to 9-3 through a penalty by Matt Hart, and then kicked to touch for a line-out five metres from Clifton's line.
The hooker, James Whitfield, has 11 tries this season, leading to the nickname the "Whitty Express". On this occasion he hit the buffers. The throw-in pit-patted off the fingertips of two forwards and Clifton cleared to cheers from a coachload of supporters up from Bristol.
John Betjeman might have done something poetic with the prosaic nature of the spoils at stake. "Farewell London and South East Division, hello National League Three South." It was not to be, and anyway Hallett had a punchier phrase for it. "We all feel it's about waking the dead."
Richmond: M Hart (capt); R Emmerson, J Ajuwa, A MacLennan, C Tunnuci; D Connellan (T Leigh, 62), D Shaw; R Allhusen, J Whitfield (M Bolton, 80), O Gregory, J Farmer, S Dixon (C Murphy, 42), S Ault, J Fiori, S Barlow.
Clifton: R Viol; A Bell, O Sills, B Kent, S Kent; J Barnes, D Frost; R White, T Lambert (capt), G Shortman, R Cox, M Kempton, E Smith (C Trump, 46), J Levis, C Steetskamp.
Referee: D Gamage (East Midlands).Reuse content