AS bombshells go, this was nuclear. After a mere 127 years in residence at the Richmond Athletic Association in West London, the London Scottish club chairman Malcolm Offord revealed in July that the exiles were going to up sticks and move (the club is actually 142 years old this year but spent the first 15 years of their existence in Blackheath).
As you can imagine, the announcement placed the cat in the dovecote. There are a couple of Whatsapp groups of former players that an old pal of mine follows and the invective was flying.
The ground share with Richmond was always a marriage of convenience rather than affection and to get to the nub of the matter we have to wind the clock back 24 years to the dawn of professionalism in 1996 when Tony Tiarks somehow persuaded the club members to sell the family silver for a song. The most valuable part of the club was the 50% lease on the RAA ground and we (I was a member at the time) gifted it to a snake oil salesman.
Richmond had the other 50% and when Tiarks’ short-lived, ruinous intervention was wound down in 2000 it was Richmond who found the wherewithal to buy the London Scots’ half of the RAA lease from the administrators. This purchase put Richmond in the driving seat because it meant that every penny that the London Scots spend in the bar or restaurant goes straight into their pockets. Offord claims that London Scottish is Richmond’s second largest source of money (after the RFU). He may be right.
Richmond hold all the aces. They train on the evenings that suit them. They gobble up all the monies spent on the ground and they refused point blank to consider selling the half lease back to London Scottish despite the exiles promising to place it in trust to prevent another charlatan like Tiarks from doing the three card trick for a second time.
Doing nothing is not an option
While the WhatsApp groups were dealing with emotion, and moving home is a highly emotive subject, Offord has made a tidy fortune investing in the markets and you get the impression that he feels on safer ground in the world of facts and figures. He shared a few with me last week.
“In the 20 years since Tony Tiarks left the club, we have spent ten years working our way back to where we were before he arrived after being placed at the bottom of the English league system,” he says by video link from London.
“Then we have spent ten years in the English Championship. During that time we have spent ten million pounds. Approximately seven and a half million of that money came from 166 people who hold shares in the club (the main benefactor being former chairman Sir David Reid) while two and a half million came from the RFU.
“This year our money from Twickenham is 25% of what it was last season and the RFU have announced that they are going to halt any funding for Championship sides altogether after this season. Our shareholders have had 0% return on their investment to date and they have announced that they no longer want to stump up money year after year.
“The only successful sides are ones that own their own ground, or at least own a long lease on it and that is what we must aim to do.”
At this point Offord tacitly agrees that, with the benefit of hindsight, the £7.5 million that the shareholders have invested could have been put to better use than hiring second-rate English rugby players to play second division rugby for a ‘Scottish’ club. But that is history.
The good news is that Offord (who was recently elected unopposed as the Exiles rep on the SRU Council and almost immediately appointed a non-executive director on the Scottish Rugby Board) has identified four potential ground sites in West London that might host the peripatetic exiles after one last gallop around the RAA in the coming season, Covid willing. After that the first XV are moving 30 minutes down the A3 to Esher Rugby Club, for two seasons starting 2021-22, but the amateur club, with all the minis, midis and age grade players, hope to remain in West London.
The club has a preferred ground known as “site B” and Offord expects to sign on the dotted line before the end of the year. Presuming the amateur club settles successfully at “site B” it would likely become the club’s preferred ground for the senior XV as well. No amount of cajoling will persuade Offord to share the whereabouts of this Eden but he did concede that it may be closer to central London than Richmond is, rather than further away. Any potential permanent site, he insists, has to be inside the M25 corridor.
“You might think that finding a ground would be impossible,” he argues, “but actually there is a realisation now that we have built on a lot of green belt and we have to manage what we have left better.”
There are two principles guiding Offord as he attempts to lead the exiles to the promised land like a latter day Moses. The first is ownership of the ground (or a long lease) so the club can make it a seven-day-a-week, multi-use, sports hub incorporating everything from American Football to women’s soccer, and benefit from the resulting bar/restaurant/membership takings.
Secondly, he wants the club to be “relevant to Scottish rugby”. For all the money thrown at the exiles, London Scottish have failed to provide any full Scotland internationals from their own feeder system although ironically they did manage to produce an English Test player in the form of Bath winger Ruaridh McConnochie who started out in the exiles system.
There is no point in London Scottish, I put it to him, unless it is Scottish, and Offord apparently agrees because he envisages a club full of Scottish qualified players. The easiest way for London Scottish to revert to its Scottish roots is if Murrayfield wants a third professional team playing in the PRO12/14/16 (delete as appropriate) and the chairman admits that is the club’s ultimate ambition.
Has Offord had any feedback from those in authority at Murrayfield to make him believe his dream may come to fruition?
“Yes,” he insists. “I have been badgering them for three years and they can’t argue with the logic. There are 200,000 first generation Scots living inside the M25. It is the biggest market in the country and the wealthiest. Everyone wants a franchise in London. New Zealand or Australia would bite your hand off for a London franchise.”
In fact, Offord sees the biggest hurdle not being Murrayfield’s intransigence but rather a World Rugby law that prevents an SRU franchise operating in the RFU’s back garden. We shall see.
“England pick from 12 teams, Ireland and Wales from four, Scotland needs another professional team,” Offord argues. “The Borders has had a go and they failed, Aberdeen and Dundee are football cities, so London is the obvious place and this is now accepted if only through gritted teeth.”
The professional dream
Offord sees the potential of London Scottish in the PRO12/14/16 attracting a whopping 20,000 spectators to their new facility, although they rarely get more than 1,500 at the RAA and he isn’t clear what will change apart from the fact that Welsh/Irish fans may pop in to catch their fellow countrymen when Scarlets/Munster drop anchor in London.
But he is clear on one thing, London Scottish are not holding out the begging bowl to Murrayfield looking for largesse. They need to show their worth before the SRU can be expected to get behind another pro team.
“We need to help ourselves to help them (SRU) to help us,” is how he puts it, and you know what he is getting at.
The club celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2028, or at least it should do. If Offord has got this move wrong, it’s possible that what he calls “the most storied club in the world” may not reach that benchmark, at least not in any recognisable form.
And then the WhatsApp warriors really would have something to shout about.