Jobs for the boys

As rugby union enters a new era of professionalism and bickering over big money, the players at Bath, England's largest club, face giving up their steady jobs as farmers, butchers and policemen. Jim White reports. Photographs by Tom Bible
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Indy Lifestyle Online
According to the traditionalists, a century of glorious British practice will shortly come to an end, with the final kick of this rugby union season. From September, when competition begins again in earnest, this last bastion of sporting amateurism, whose Corinthian values have held in check the advance of grubby commercialism, will turn fully professional. Instead of doing it merely for the fun which sustained generations of previous exponents, players will - pass the smelling salts - be paid.

Those who play the game at the highest level are relieved. No longer will they risk their ear lobes, their necks and their noses every week for no proper financial return. No longer will the huge television and sponsorship income generated by their efforts disappear into others' pockets. And, better still, no longer need they be party to the shabby practices which have characterised their sport for the past two decades.

As the game grew richer through the Eighties and early Nineties, so the manner in which the amateur rules have been circumvented became ever more Byzantine. Clubs wishing to attract top talent used all sorts of cunning incentives, from the rent-free use of clubhouses, to wads of cash popped into boots left strategically in dressing rooms. Few players, in short, will shed a tear at the demise of the great British compromise known as "shamateurism", though some of those who run the game seem keen to hold on to it. Even as rugby goes professional, a power struggle has ensued between the Rugby Football Union ("the 57 old farts" of Will Carling's analysis) and the 20 leading clubs about who should control it. At the moment, the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs are determined to break away from the RFU, threatening the greatest split in rugby since the formation of rugby league.

The players may be forced to take sides. At Bath football club, the most successful and financially muscular in the country, the new order will mean big decisions for the current team. The opportunity to devote themselves full-time to their sport will be available; but will they want to pack in jobs which they have carefully nurtured, which provide them with adequate time off and a career, and which will still be there when they retire from the game?

Perhaps for Ian Sanders, the scrum half, a policeman pounding the beat around Bath, or David Hilton, the Scottish international and prop, who works in his father's butcher's shop in Knowle Broadway, near Bristol, the choice will be straightforward: rugby will be better paid, and they can always return to their jobs later. For others, such as hooker Graham Dawe, who farms in Devon, there will at last be adequate recompense for the time they spend away from developing their own businesses.

But many of the stars of the Bath side may well prefer to remain part- timers. Unlike its Welsh counterpart, English rugby is overwhelmingly a middle-class pursuit, and its supporters have always been able and willing to provide employment for the players. Having an international on the company's letterhead not only keeps the clients happy and opens doors to new business, it also ensures that the managing director is supplied with tickets for big games. It's well worth giving the employees months off to pursue their hobby.

Indeed, so prevalent has this practice become that Brian Moore, the former England and Harlequins hooker, and a partner in a firm of City solicitors, was regularly infuriated by the widespread assumption in his profession that he didn't do a proper job. "Though," he says, with a glint of the competitive instinct that characterised his playing career, "anyone made a mistake if they underestimated me."

Since the mid-Eighties, as corporate hospitality has boomed, the amateur rugby player has also realised the market value of his celebrity. The pioneer was Will Carling, of England and Harlequins. When he graduated, Carling, who had had Army sponsorship at university, spurned the chance of a commission because he would have lacked the time away from soldiering to prepare for his game. Instead, he became a management consultant. "Here's how I motivated the England team", was his sales pitch, "so go off and motivate your squad of loss adjusters in the same way."

Others quickly followed. At Bath, winger Adedayo Adebayo works for his father's Nigerian-based business entertaining clients; the prop Victor Ubogu co-owns Shoeless Joe's, a bar in London's King's Road, where he is regularly seen pressing the flesh; Mike Catt, fly-half for Bath and full-back with England, and Jeremy Guscott, international centre, are also in constant attendance at corporate events, where people will pay big money to rub up against sporting excellence. Guscott has had some success as a model, too.

It is unlikely, come September, that established players like these will significantly change their routines. The effects of professionalism will be fully felt only when a new generation of young players emerges, men who prefer to concentrate solely on their game. Players will get better in consequence. Brian Moore, for example, used to train on his own after work for two hours a night. On Thursdays, he also trained with the team, working on plays and moves. Professional footballers, in contrast, only train for two hours a day. Even so, Moore believes he never achieved the same level of fitness. For him, professionalism is not simply a matter of being paid.

"I approached my training after a full day's work, when the body and the mind were tired and less likely to absorb the full benefits," he says. "Compared to the full-time rugby league boys at Wigan, it was another world. They have the luxury of quality training, quality physio to help them recover properly from injury, and, just as importantly, quality rest between games."

A sign of the brave new world of English rugby will be seen in May, when Bath take on Wigan, England's best league team, in two exhibition matches. The first, on 8 May, will be played at Maine Road in Manchester under league rules; on 25 May, it will be under union rules at Twickenham. The Bath players will draw some comfort from these encounters, if only because there will be financial recompense for the mauling they are expected to receive