Skinstad brings the shine back to old gold

After the rise and fall the good times are starting to roll again at a famous old home of the game. By Tim Glover in Richmond
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The Independent Online

In 2000, after being sold down the Thames and made homeless, Richmond had one goal: survival. Yesterday they were playing in what their president, Tony Hallett, described as "the match of the decade, a four-pointer, top-of- the-table clash." The last time I saw Richmond at the Athletic Ground they were beating Leicester, and Martin Johnson. Now, top of London League One, they were playing Ealing, their closest challengers. Since they began throwing a pig's bladder around this park about 150 years ago, Richmond have produced well over 100 international players. When they were in the Premiership they had 14, and yesterday they fielded their unlikeliest cap yet.

Bobby Skinstad, once the glamour boy and captain of South Africa, lives in Fulham, works as a commentator for Sky and does a bit for Saatchi & Saatchi. Once the frontman for South African-based attempts to gain a foothold in professional rugby in England, he pitched up here at the beginning of the season in search of a game.

One of the world's greatest No 8s, Skinstad told the club: "I'd like to play at centre and if I'm no good I'll play for the second team." He was not a conspicuous success there so yesterday he played in the middle of the back row, where he was. He is the most illustrious Springbok to play for Richmond since Tommy Bedford and Nick Mallett.

There is no payment at this club. The players get a few quid for travelling expenses and don't have to worry about medical insurance, although even at level five on the national pyramid the competition can be serious.

When Richmond were forced to sell the family silver, they were saved from oblivion by the four musketeers, a quartet who had the time and money to put in £700,000. It enabled the club to return to the Athletic Ground, which is leased from the Crown Estate. Had Richmond not succeeded, the place might now be the training ground of Chelsea FC. Ken Bates, then the Chelsea chairman, offered the administrators £2 million.

Despite their history, Richmond discovered they had few friends when they hit the wall. The Premiership was desperate to condense from 14 clubs to 12 and the exit of Richmond and London Scottish, their co-tenants here, answered their prayers. When both clubs reformed, the Rugby Football Union placed them in the Herts-Middlesex League, nine levels beneath their previous station.

The response has been remarkable. Four promotions in five seasons means that if they go up again they will be in National League Three (South). Richmond's first home league defeat in four years came against Worthing last October. They had racked up 83 wins, which they thought was a record, only to be beaten into the Guinness Book of World Records by a junior club in New Zealand who had notched up 108 wins in a row.

Yesterday, in front of a crowd of 1,250 (Harlequins had been sent to Coventry in National League One and where else, apart from London Welsh, do Londoners watch rugby on a Saturday?), Richmond maintained their unbeaten start to the season, beating Ealing 32-12. The full-back Matt Brown scored three of their six tries, the last perfectly set up by Skinstad, who played the second half at centre.

That Brown should be named man of the match was appropriate. He has been at the club through thick and thin, as has the captain and scrum-half, Dan Taberner. The team who began the climb from the base of the pyramid five years ago were based on the Under-21 squad. Today, the Athletic Ground will be swamped by mini, youth and women's rugby. The old gold, rather than the nouveau riche, is standing the test of time.

Richmond's other tries came from Tristan Wesley, James Whitfield and a penalty try, Joe Goatley landing the only conversion before departing with a leg injury, to be replaced by the former Northampton wing Harvey Thorneycroft. Ealing, who won plenty of possession without being half as creative, scored through four penalties, three by Ben Ward, one by Pat McCarthy.

Richmond's seven-year plan has gone to, well, plan and they say they would like to reach National League One and play against old rivals such as their neighbours London Welsh. "Playing in the Premier-ship is a completely different ball game," Hallett, the former RFU secretary, said. "I'm not saying we'd never want to return to the big time, but once bitten twice shy and all that."

The Argentina No 9 Agustin Pichot is still a member; when the club went bust he received a cheque for £770, which he handed back. Levett also remained a member. "There was rancour at the time because everything was so sudden," Hallett said, "but after pulling out Ashley made amends in helping us to emerge from administration. He doesn't need an armed guard when he comes here."

Richmond: M Brown; A Irving, T Leigh, A Saunders, D Connolly (T Wesley, 40); J Goatley (H Thorneycroft, 25), D Taberner (capt); R Allhusen, J Whitfield, O Gregory (L Mann, 69), S Dixon, C Murphy, J Lake, B Skinstad, S Barlow.

Ealing: L Gunn; A Shelleng, C Hughes, S Bundy, A MacRae; B Ward, P McCarthy; K Power, S Hodson, J Smith, J Dunne, C Retief, G Tindall, B Acton (A Butler, 61), D Essien.

Referee: A Nicholas (London).

THE RICHMOND ROLLER-COASTER

1861: Richmond established. 1871: Founding members of Rugby Football Union.

1995: Game turns professional, Richmond bought out by Ashley Levett, multi-millionaire copper trader with a base in Monaco.

1999: Richmond are a force in the Premiership, attracting growing crowds to new home, the Madejski Stadium, and boasting 14 internationals, including Ben Clarke, Brian Moore, Scott and Craig Quinnell.

1999: Levett withdraws funding. Club go into administration. Neither Premiership nor RFU come to rescue. Richmond demoted nine levels.

2005: After four promotions, club are in London League One and in sight of return to National Leagues.

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