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Old foes set to renew rivalry
This Saturday at 3.00 pm, in a leafy suburb of south-west London, a sporting event of some significance will take place.
Because when the Richmond rugby team take to the field at their Athletic Ground home, they will do so against Blackheath in a re-creation of the oldest club fixture in world rugby.
It’s not that these two famous sporting institutions aren’t familiar with each other. Richmond and Blackheath have met frequently in recent years in pre-season friendlies.
This time, however, will mark the first meeting of the sides in serious competition for 15 years, a fact not lost on Blackheath president Des Diamond.
‘The last time we played Richmond in a competitive fixture was 5th April 1997 at the Athletic Ground in the then Courage League Two (Level 2),’ said Blackheath President Des Diamond.
‘Richmond (with the Quinnell brothers, Ben Clarke, Brian Moore et al) won 29-24 on the way to the league title and promotion into what is now the Premiership. It is thus with great anticipation that we renew the fixture, on December 8th at the Athletic Ground after more than a 15 year lapse.’
‘Both clubs became founder members (along with 19 others) of the RFU early in 1871,’ he continued. ‘No doubt the old competitive spirit will drive both sides to try to achieve a victory more meaningful than most. Richmond, lying 11th in the league and coached by former Blackheath No 8 Steve Hill, will seek to use home advantage to the full against the “Club” who are lying 8th.’
It was after Blackheath withdrew from talks to establish the fledgling Football Association in 1863 that Richmond extended the invitation to play a game under the new ‘Rugby Rules’ in January of the following year.
The contest took place a stone’s throw from the Athletic Ground, on Richmond Green, close to the Palace where Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur famously didn’t consummate their marriage (on account of their tender age , the unfortunate Arthur dying soon after, leaving Catherine free to marry the future King Henry VIII – the rest, as they say, being history).
For the record, the result was one goal apiece, and it is recorded that immediately afterwards the two sides again faced each other along a length of rope and fought a ‘tug of war’, the outcome of which is sadly lost in the mists of time.
In 1878 Richmond went on to break new ground by hosting an experimental floodlit match, and in 1905 was one of the first clubs to entertain a touring All Blacks side. Meanwhile, Richmond and Blackheath have continued to meet on a regular basis (and even produced a combined side during World War Two), and when the game went open in 1995, both clubs keenly embraced the new professional era.
However, despite rising briefly to the Premiership, Richmond’s flirtation with the top level quickly turned sour as they were unceremoniously expelled, requiring them to start again at the bottom of the league structure (Blackheath also over-reaching themselves and suffering to a lesser degree).
Now though, happily, the efforts of a few dedicated individuals have restored Richmond to their rightful place in the top 40 of England’s leading clubs, enabling them once again to entertain their old foe in meaningful competition, and restore a famous sporting fixture started on a quiet green in Surrey, nearly 150 years ago.