Richmond at London Irish a reminder of Premiership promise and unfairness | Robert Kitson

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At first glance it looks like any normal fixture. London Irish v Richmond in the Greene King Championship, kick-off 3pm. Tickets still very much available if you are free on Saturday afternoon. Beneath the low-key facade, however, lies an occasion awash with irony. For anyone with a passing interest in the strange economics and murky past politics of English club rugby this is not any old game.

It must be significant because Nigel Melville, the Rugby Football Union’s director of professional rugby, will be among those present. On one level there is the whole acrimonious story of Richmond’s ejection from the leagues in 1999 when they were subsumed, against their wishes, into a holding company bearing Irish’s name. The grand old club have spent 16 years trying to recapture their lost status; small wonder their chairman, Peter Moore, frequently uses the word “resurrection”.

Yet beneath Richmond’s understandable pride – as well as the still-simmering resentment at their abandonment by some supposed Premiership friends – there is another layer of intrigue. Richmond may be back but not as a professional outfit. Having won promotion they have opted to stay a strictly part-time squad, combining their rugby with jobs in the City and elsewhere and training together for only a handful of hours each week. For better or for worse, it feels like the 1980s reincarnated.

That would be fine – and prudent given Richmond attract 2,500 paying souls for their most attractive matches – if they were playing against clubs doing the same thing. But London Irish, relegated from the Premiership last season, are a fully professional operation with an All Black, Ben Franks, in their starting front row. Richmond have an old Etonian prop named Timmy Walford. Even setting aside the potential safety concerns, it raises an urgent question: what exactly is the Championship’s raison d’etre?

As highlighted last season in the Guardian there are all sorts of issues for players operating beneath the Premiership: poor salaries, insufficient medical insurance, no union assistance in negotiating fairer contracts. Several clubs are creaking, with London Welsh’s high court appearance this week the latest example of financial instability. “It’s not just London Welsh, four or five are on the edge,” Moore says. “I can’t see how this model can continue. To have 24 professional clubs in England, to my mind, is not a financially viable option.”

Something has to give. While the Premiership salary cap has risen – the base level is £6.5m per club with an allowance for two extra “marquee” players on top – Championship clubs receive £530,000 in central funding per annum. A fully-professional squad of 35 pro players at a basic £30,000 apiece – not enough to buy an open-air potting shed in Richmond – costs double that. “It was quite clear to me when I researched the other clubs that the Championship is not a business opportunity,” Moore says, dryly. “I think the RFU has got to redefine what the purpose of the league is.”


London Irish’s Ben Franks featured for the All Blacks in last year’s World Cup final but is set to face Richmond’s team of amateurs on Saturday. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

The good news is Melville is grasping that nettle. Quite why it has taken previous RFU regimes so long to do so is the subject of numerous conspiracy theories: surely it should have been obvious aspiring English players, coaches and referees need a healthy environment in which to develop. Happily, the former England scrum-half and captain, who cut his own teeth in Otley, is alive to the ridiculous fact more Premiership academy players are dual-registered further down the pyramid than with second-tier clubs.

“The Championship is critical to us for the development of young players,” he said this week. “We need to get these kids into these games and I think we can create a really attractive product.”

To that end, Melville has been touring the country discussing options with clubs and sponsors. He accepts “something’s broken and we have to fix it” and met Sir Ian McGeechan, among others, in Nottingham on Thursday for further talks. Simply throwing money at the problem, he says, is not the answer. “Let’s not fool ourselves that by pumping a ton of money into a level-five club that it’s somehow good for the game. It’s probably not. We have to determine levels of professional rugby and make sure we police those to help people create sustainable rugby. It can’t just be money going out of the game to a washed-up pro from the Premiership.”

The Richmond way is one possible avenue but is still problematic. What about clubs outside London where there are fewer well-paid banking jobs? If the whole league goes semi-pro will the gap with the Premiership become too cavernous? Might it lead to a closed shop with no promotion or relegation? What about the head-spinning logistics? Richmond’s Canada international lock Tyler Hotson arrives at his desk at Goldman Sachs at 6.45am. Try doing that on a Monday morning in December having played away in Penzance the previous day. “I’m a lot busier than I used to be,” says Hotson, who has had stints at Doncaster, Plymouth Albion and London Scottish. “We try to train in a short and sharp way simply because we have to.”

Hopefully there will be a happier ending than last time, when the club’s backer Ashley Levett abruptly pulled the plug and Richmond, who finished fifth in their first Premiership season, were treated badly after going into administration. The board of English First Division Rugby had spotted a convenient opportunity to reduce the Premiership from 14 clubs to 12, prompting Richmond’s then-coach John Kingston to accuse those in charge of “cannibalism”.

Moore concedes the episode “does still rankle” but also has clear memories of the Levett era when Richmond briefly masqueraded as the world’s most ambitious club. “There was no normality. We went from one employee to about 70 in three months. There was no business plan, there wasn’t time. My background was financial and when I came in I said: ‘I don’t understand how this can possibly work.’ It still doesn’t work 20 years later.”

Good luck, regardless, to the gallant optimists of Richmond as they seek to improve on their opening 16-41 defeat to Jersey and remain a thriving local club for all. “The most important thing for us is to come out of this season solvent,” Moore says. Even if there is the occasional mismatch, he promises the team will relish the opportunity and raise a communal glass in the bar afterwards. “Rugby is to be enjoyed, not endured. Once the players do their warm-downs and get past 7pm we’re back to normal traditional rugby. Otherwise there’s no point in playing.”

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