London Irish’s top-flight return shows gulf between rugby’s rich and poor

As the Exiles sealed their Premiership return, Richmond offer a reminder that there must be more to the sport than money

Luke McLean breaks for London Irish on the way to a 46-7 victory for his side against Richmond, which confirmed promotion to the Premiership. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Benjamin Disraeli was writing about the rich and the poor, but his words could also apply to the gulf that has grown between the Premiership and the Championship.

London Irish sealed their return to the top flight last week on a very good Friday for the Exiles. They beat Richmond 46-7 at the Athletic Ground, a facility that looks pretty much as it did in the days before rugby union went open, a refuge for fans rather than corporates with the game itself the draw.

Has there ever been a greater contrast between two clubs in the second tier of English club rugby? In the one corner stood London Irish, top of the table, one victory away from promotion and armed with a fully professional squad and a management team high on international experience. In the other was Richmond, a club made up of players who were not salaried but received win bonuses and appearance fees to top up their day jobs.

Irish’s victory meant Richmond remained at the bottom of the table and the following day they were relegated to the National League after Hartpury, who in recent months had exploited their link with Gloucester to boost their squad in an attempt to avoid the drop, defeated the other club who call the Athletic Ground home, London Scottish. Richmond were down but far from out.

Irish can look forward to an income of between £6m and £8m next season, depending on how they fare on their return to the big time, on top of the money they are receiving from CVC as part of the private equity company’s 27% stake in the Premiership. Richmond, in contrast, will lose the annual £570,000 the Rugby Football Union pays to a Championship club.

There will not be an exodus of players because of the savage cut in income. Richmond use their income to help run six senior sides (many of their rivals in the second tier this season have been reduced to one side because of their wage bill), two women’s teams and a flourishing age-group section. They are taking 70 players on an end-of-season tour to Buenos Aires after which they will assess their priorities for the new season.

Do they aim for a return to the Championship, as the only non-professional club for the years they have been in it, or do they remain at the level below, serving the community and providing rugby for players no matter how good they are? They do not aspire to a return to the Premiership where they were 20 years ago before the club’s then owner, Ashley Levett, tired of subsiding England players in the days before the clubs had reached an agreement with the RFU, and pulled his investment. The professional arm of Richmond, and that of London Scottish, was taken over by London Irish and they had to start again at the bottom of the league pyramid, like London Welsh two years ago.

The Premiership clubs want the top flight to be increased to 13 clubs, the number who will receive the CVC lump sum. Some want promotion and relegation to be suspended because of the financial divide between the two divisions, while others are open to the idea of a play-off.

With Yorkshire Carnegie slashing the playing budget next season and admitting a return to the Premiership will not happen any time soon, there are few clubs in the Championship with ambitions of emulating Exeter. It would cost them too much, both up front and down the line, as the examples of Rotherham and London Welsh show.

Richmond (in stripes against London Irish) were relegated to the National League but director Ian Capon said ‘it will not change the way we operate’. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Ealing Trailfinders and Cornish Pirates, who are due to move in to their new stadium next season, are exceptions, but the cost of membership of the Premiership will only keep going up. For Richmond, the second oldest club in England after Blackheath, it is about investing in the club itself rather than one squad.

“We have plans to redevelop our ground, not to take it to Premiership standard but because it is looking its age a bit. We showed by staying in the Premiership for three years, and going down only after Hartpury finished the season with a vastly different squad to the one that started it, that you do not have to put all your resources into player wages and cut back everything else.

“More and more Championship clubs are asking themselves whether that is the route to take. We do not pay our players a wage and they all have day jobs, but we support them with full-time coaches and strength and conditioning staff and pay for gym memberships. It allows us to run Richmond in the traditional way. We have been going for 158 years and we can look into the future.”

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