Rugby faces mass defection to Packer

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The end of Rugby Union as an amateur game in England moved a dramatic step forward yesterday, when representatives of the English First Division clubs met leading players, who are believed to have been offered up to pounds 140,000 each to sign for a new league bank-rolled by Kerry Packer, the Australian media magnate .

Mr Packer wants to add an English or European club league to the global Rugby Union circus for which he is challenging Rupert Murdoch. England players began receiving contracts yesterday, and Mr Packer already has the provisional acceptance of as many as 140 First Division players for a professional competition due to start in November.

Representatives from all England's First Division clubs, with the exception of Orrell and West Hartlepool, were at yesterday's meeting. The clubs must now come forward with counter-proposals to prevent a mass defection.

The amateurism that Rugby Union has decreasingly cherished over the past century is disintegrating, even before the sport's governing body, the International Board (IB), has its special meeting on the subject in Paris next month.

Yesterday's talks were called at short notice in response to a situation many club administrators believe is getting out of control.

John Quin, secretary of the English cup-holders Bath, said: "Let's not beat about the bush: we are going to go professional, and the last thing we want is to find ourselves with a Bath Mark 2."

All this has come about without reference to the Rugby Football Union, England Rugby's governing body, which has been waiting for the IB to meet while Mr Packer's representatives have been trawling the world to acquire the services of the best players. The word last night was that anyone who was anyone in Australian and New Zealand rugby had signed for Packer, rather than wait for the Murdoch money that will be available from his pounds 360m television deal with the Australian, New Zealand and South African unions.

"I would say this was a panic meeting," another senior club official said last night.

"One of the England players who was present said he had spoken on the phone to another player in New Zealand, was told they had all signed and was asked if he and others in England had signed. He said 'yes'."

"Negotiations on behalf of the England squad are understood to be in the hands of a small group of senior players. Tony Underwood, the England wing, said last night he was still awaiting the outcome: "We are obviously in a very delicate situation. Lots of different permutations are being put forward and we must not get caught in the middle between Murdoch and Packer.

"The players will be getting together in the near future to discuss the best options available for us and for the game as it now is."