Sugar daddies break even

Richmond 20 Newcastle 20
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The Independent Online
Three years ago, Ben Clarke was just about the best loose forward in world rugby, and yesterday he rediscovered some of the essential truths that made him the envy of New Zealand during the last British Lions tour. But rugby men are born, not bought, and big games are still about rucks rather than bucks.

Clarke was born into the sport's warrior caste - the hotter the temperature, the greater the enjoyment - but since his move from Bath to Richmond at the end of last season, real battles have been thin on the ground. This one, however, was always likely to get the juices flowing again: the opponents were not Rotherham or Nottingham or any of the other cash-strapped League Two no-hopers, but Newcastle, awash with new money and every bit as single-minded in their challenge for the one guaranteed promotion passage into next year's top flight.

Sure enough, the occasion brought out some of the old vigour from the man Colin Meads wanted to make an honorary All Black. Bloodied in the first minute yet unusually anonymous for much of the opening half, Clarke grasped the nettle after the break to make two outstanding tackles on John Bentley and Dean Ryan to lay the foundations for Scott Quinnell's 55th-minute try.

Along with both Quinnell brothers - Craig Quinnell was quite a handful in the second row - the captain drew the sting from a Newcastle pack that looked in control early on. Richmond's title chances would have been dealt a mortal blow if they had lost; as it is, the Londoners have given themselves a fighting chance in the war of the big spenders. Had it not been for Gary Armstrong's well-executed try in the last minute, when Allan Bateman's missed touch allowed Rob Andrew and Tony Underwood to manufacture a joyous run-in for the Scottish scrum-half, Richmond would have claimed both points. But that would have been hard on Newcastle, who appeared to be doing most things right until the referee, Steve Lander, took the penalty try fashion to new heights of folly and handed the home side a lifeline.

Some 6,000 supporters gave the Athletic Ground an unusually vibrant atmosphere, but two early Andrew penalties and an exciting sprinter's try from Underwood cut the noise levels down to a minimum. Unforced errors cost the more cohesive Newcastle a comfortable lead, and they paid the penalty, quite literally, as half-time approached.

Richmond's forwards were so badly over-matched at the lineout that possession was at a premium, but they finally worked up a head of steam to work their way into a prime attacking position. Two close scrums and a couple of short-range penalty charges ensued and when Scott Quinnell launched a third assault, Lander decided that Newcastle had infringed once too often. Quinnell was still several metres short when the whistle came.

That try knocked Newcastle back on their heels, and with Andrew disorganised despite the flow of possession from Doddie Weir and Garath Archer, Richmond were spending increasing amounts of time in the opposition's territory. Simon Mason was wide with two kickable penalties within four minutes of the restart, but when Clarke instigated one of his characteristic charges and was stopped centimetres short of the line, Scott Quinnell crashed over from the ensuing scrum.

Thanks to some spirited defensive work and an experienced hand played by the former England hooker Brian Moore, Richmond inched towards victory. And when their outside-half Adrian Davies chanced his arm with a drop goal four minutes from time, the lead grew to seven points.

But Andrew was intent on pulling the game out of the fire for the visitors and, even though he missed two long-range penalty attempts in the closing minutes, his tactical kicking was sufficient to give Newcastle one last shot at saving the day. It was an opportunity Armstrong was not likely to spurn once Underwood had put him through.

Richmond: S Mason; J Fallon, A Bateman, S Cottrell, M Hutton; A Davies, A Moore; D McFarland, B Moore, D Crompton, C Quinnell, R West, B Clarke (capt), S Quinnell, A Vander.

Newcastle: T Stimpson; J Bentley, A Blyth, G Childs, T Underwood; R Andrew, G Armstrong; N Popplewell, R Nesdale, G Graham, G Archer, D Weir, R Arnold, D Ryan (capt), S O'Neill.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).