Grand Slam for rugby's corporate hosts

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The Independent Online
As England meet Scotland today to determine rugby union's Grand Slam, another grudge match will be taking place at Twickenham. In what might be termed the corporate challenge, the Rugby Football Union is providing business hospitality packages in competition with what it perceives as a ragged army of shady operators in and around the ground.

There are currently 86 executive boxes inside Twickenham, hired out on a three-season basis at a price which, last season, stood at £56,000. Additional revenue is raised from the only official marquee, catering for 700 guests at £450 per head, which is situated at the south-east corner of the ground.

It is the activity beyond Twickenham's castle walls which perturbs the game's ruling class. Businessmen seeking to entertain clients in the non- official corporate sector will often be paying over the official rate and will be dependent on black market tickets. The man who raises the collective blood-pressure of the RFU most notoriously is the former England forward Mike Burton, who in the last 15 years has become one of the world's leading operators within corporate hospitality.

In the early Eighties, Burton was dispensing food, drink and West Country bonhomie from a double-decker bus in Twickenham's North car park. Now his field of operation has extended beyond rugby to events such as Henley, Ascot and Wimbledon.

This weekend Burton will be catering for 2,000 guests in his luxury marquee by Twickenham's West car park, some of whom have paid up to £750, plus VAT, each. He is also responsible for hosting 400 guests at the Wales v Ireland match in his position as official poacher-turned-gamekeeper for the Welsh Rugby Union.

He calls the black market "the secondary market". "The point everyone makes is, `Why can't the ordinary little chap get a ticket?' But the whole business is not geared to the ordinary little chap. It is a question of where the money goes," he argues.

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