Bidding farewell to amateurism, tongues firmly in cheeks

The amateur ethic has never exercised the hold over the southern hemisphere that it has on the countries of the Old World

The words of welcome for rugby union's new professionalism that issued from various parts of the southern hemisphere yesterday were undoubtedly sincere but also uttered with tongues firmly in cheeks - because for New Zealand, Australia and South Africa this supposedly momentous change has merely regularised what had already been the case.

Amateurism, an ethic that owed most to the sporting Corinthianism of the 19th century and nothing to present-day commercial realities, has never exercised the hold on the southern hemisphere that it has had over the rugby-playing countries of the Old World.

In part this is because in South Africa and New Zealand rugby is the sporting king - unlike England's football fixation - so rugby's leading practitioners are both lionised and are highly marketable commodities. Apart, perhaps, from Will Carling, the England captain, there is not a single English player whose profile would approach those of even humdrum South African and New Zealand internationals.

In Australia, the situation is different because rugby union trails a distant third behind Australian Rules football and rugby league, but here the difference with the British Isles is in attitude. In order to compete, and in order to prevent its players being bought up by league, the Australian Rugby Football Union (ARFU) has for years had no qualms about securing for its players the very best financial packages possible, short of straight paying-for-playing.

In England, the Rugby Football Union - which has often been caricatured as a last repository of Victorian values - has, by comparison, been dragged kicking and screaming into a disagreeable modern world. Amateur rugby players have since 1980 been permitted to make money out of off-the-field activities (promotional work and the like) but even at a time of unprecedented playing success, the England team have until the past year or so had to make their own arrangements without support and with scarcely any assistance from their union.

Contrast this with Australia, where in 1993 the ARFU staged a gala dinner in Sydney, with the profit of pounds 212,000 going straight to its players. Still earlier, in 1992, the French were surprised to find that there were no post-match dinners on their tour of South Africa - until they discovered the reason: the South African team were being paid pounds 2,800 to spend an hour in a restaurant at a sponsor's behest.

This month, the South African RFU bound its internationals to contracts worth an annual pounds 100,000 a man, a sum which with provincial additions could be more like pounds 150,000. The All Blacks in New Zealand have signed for up to pounds 130,000 a man, the Australian Wallabies around pounds 125,000.

These deals were concluded before - one might say without reference to - the historic meeting in Paris at the weekend. No wonder Richie Guy, chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, was able yesterday to say: "It's a major step in the formal sense that the International Board has accepted that the word amateur will be taken out of the regulations. But in a practical sense, I don't think it will make a great deal of difference."

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