Richmond Rugby return to England’s second tier next weekend after a 17-year hiatus and, despite being the only amateur team in the league, director of rugby Steve Hill is confident of success.
The country’s second oldest rugby club went into administration in 1999 and had to begin from scratch a year later in the Herts and Middlesex 1 League – level nine of the game.
From there though they recorded a national record by winning 83 matches in a row and gained four consecutive promotions.
Then in May, a promotion-clinching victory over Hartpury College won them a place in the Greene King IPA Championship and an opening day match at home to Jersey Reds on September 3.
“A successful season would be to finish 11th,” said director of rugby Steve Hill.
“We are not here just to make up the numbers.”
But the decision to remain non-professional, after a vote by more than 50 players, immediately gives the club a challenge others do not face.
A club statement said players must have some other means of financial support apart from rugby and many of them work in the city.
Richmond did negotiate a partnership with The Foundry health centre in Vauxhall to allow them to complete gym sessions closer to home, but the 22-game season will take them to every corner of the country, from Penzance to Jersey to Yorkshire.
“The biggest challenge for us is recovery,” said Hill.
“When the likes of London Irish will be spending next the day on the massage table, our boys will be sat at a desk for eight hours.”
They have tried to help with that by bringing in more coaching staff, including experienced prop Adam Jones, who has played 95 times for Wales and signed for Premiership side Harlequins last year.
“We have made the decision to bring in three strength and conditioning coaches as well as a nutritionist. We have also brought in Adam as our scrum coach,” said Hill, who has decided to rest his first team squad for the British and Irish Cup.
“My first team will not be playing in the competition.
“We have the strongest second team in the country and the competition will be a real chance for them to prove themselves, they have lost two games in five seasons so it will be a real test for them.”
Recently relegated London Irish are the bookies’ hot favourites to bounce back to the top flight and Hill agrees that the Reading-based outfit, who they face in their second game before playing Doncaster Knights, are destined to return at the first attempt.
“The league is theirs to lose,” he added.
“They have more financial backing and, having come down from the Aviva Premiership, the infrastructure is already there.
“We’ve been handed a very tough start. I think that, come the end of September, we will have a very good idea of what being in the Championship means.”
In addition to matches in Dublin and Llanelli, Richmond will come up against rivals on their doorstep in the shape of London Scottish and London Welsh.
The Scots, with whom Richmond share their Athletic Ground home, will be hoping to improve on their eighth place finish last season, while the Welsh exiles are targeting a top-four finish and a potential third promotion in five seasons.
With all three teams living in each other’s back gardens, there are six mouth-watering south west London derbies for rugby fans to enjoy.
While the Welsh could be considered the strongest of the three, their two narrow losses to Scottish last season proved the unpredictability of a derby.
Hill said: “They will be a return to the proper, old-school rugby days. they will be very tough encounters.”
Richmond will wait until November 5 before they do battle with their neighbours London Welsh and then face London Scottish just 11 days later.
But Christmas Eve promises to be the day fans of all three teams will enjoy the most.
London Welsh host London Scottish in a lunchtime Celtic battle, followed by Richmond against London Irish just two pitch lengths away at the Athletic Ground.
If Richmond are to stave off relegation and secure Championship rugby for another season, they must be ruthlessly efficient against their derby rivals. As the saying goes, ‘keep your friends close…’