Rugby bows to power of the purse

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The Independent Online
Rugby union yesterday became the last major spectator sport to abandon amateurism and embrace professionalism. It officially overturned 172 years of Victorian values since William Webb Ellis purportedly first ran with the ball.

The governing body, the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), which spent three days discussing the issue in a Paris hotel, had been expected simply to declare the end of amateurism, a worthy but outdated principle that had become increasingly discredited by surreptitious and sometimes overt non-compliance.

But in the event, the IRFB council went much further by declaring that the amateur regulations would be repealed at their autumn meeting in Tokyo at the end of September and be replaced by a new dispensation ending any prohibition on payment or material benefit for anyone involved as player or official at any level of the game.

There will be no limit placed on these payments and win bonuses will be permitted. The question of whether and when to admit or re-admit rugby league players who had forfeited their amateur status will be dealt with at the Tokyo meeting.

The board was faced with no option but to abandon the long-cherished belief that gave birth to rugby league 100 years ago tomorrow when some working-class northern clubs broke with the Rugby Football Union (RFU), over reimbursing players for lost wages.

On the eve of the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg in June, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa announced a 10-year, pounds 370m television deal with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and it was clear that a sizeable proportion of this sum would go to top-class players whatever the IRFB decided.

The players' bargaining position was further strengthened when Australian media magnate Kerry Packer attempted to buy up the leading 900 players to establish a rival, global rugby union competition. This threat forced the board's hand and, in any case, if they had not acted as they did, some member unions would have unilaterally turned professional.

Bernard Lapasset, the Frenchman who chairs the IRFB, was trying to put a brave face on the decision. "This is a momentous day for rugby, to recognise that the constraints of the modern game do not permit full maintenance of the amateur principles," he said.

In response to Kerry Packer, rugby unions around the world had already negotiated packages with leading players; last Thursday the RFU announced acceptance by the England squad of a deal worth around pounds 40,000 a year each to those who play a full international season.

Meanwhile, the South African union had wooed its players away from Mr Packer with contracts amounting to pounds 140,000 each and similar substantial deals have been struck in New Zealand and Australia, so the awkward truth is that the birth of professionalism had taken place before yesterday's revolutionary announcement.

Leading article, page 12

Rugby's revolution, page 22