1996: The shape of things to come

Rugby Union: Familiarity poses threat in an unfamiliar world
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The great rugby unions of the Southern hemisphere are keen to let it be known that Rupert Murdoch's involvement in their game is entirely benign. News Corporation's pounds 360m over the long, long decade that stretches ahead has simply allowed them to have what they have always wanted.

Whether the Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans will enjoy so easy a relationship with Murdoch's organisation when other sports appear to have been more or less taken over by him remains to be seen, but whatever the eventual reality, this is the year when rugby changes for good. This is partly to do with the arrival of professionalism, although its converse - remember dear old amateurism? - has for some years not had any existence at the more elevated levels of the game in these countries. More specifically, it is to do with the inauguration of the Sanza Southern-hemisphere competition.

Leaving aside the amorality which has seen the Pacific islanders left to drift in their own ocean, the annual home-and-away series (which one could say is a Murdoch creation) between All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies is the nearest thing they could devise to the envied Five Nations' Championship and rugby-playing's most momentous development since the World Cup nine years ago.

Since Louis Luyt, president of the South African RFU, revealed the Murdoch deal on the eve of the World Cup final last June, there has been an excess of defeatism in this part of the world. In fact, the Northern hemisphere, specifically the Five Nations, would do well to regard this as more of a challenge than a threat.

If there is danger, it is to its own participants: overkill. As New Zealand were already scheduled to make a four-Test tour of South Africa, there will be no fewer than five All Black-Springbok encounters in 1996, the first in New Zealand, with the first Test in South Africa being the return Sanza match. Even with the new professional imperatives, one wonders how great the public's attention span will be when this great fixture, once rare and precious, becomes a commonplace.

The Five Nations might care to consider this if the television companies, which expect to be the financiers of professionalism, demand an expansion in the number of championship fixtures. The next year, however, has a reassuring familiarity about it, and if folk in the old dominions disparage the quality of its rugby, they would gladly accept the sort of money - going on for pounds 2m - the RFU grosses for each Twickenham international.

As the talk in England is of transition, which in sport is usually a euphemism for decline, this will probably be the season when France resume the leadership of the Five Nations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland cast in an all-too-familiar role as underdogs. Sometimes they bite.

The innovation, and therefore special interest, of 1996 will be the expansion of the European Rugby Cup to include the English and Scots - always assuming there is no residual fall-out from the terminally bad relationships between certain of the home unions. Here, as this season's prototype event has conclusively shown, is something for European rugby to celebrate. It needs it.

PREDICTIONS: In hope rather than expectation, New Zealand to win more Tests than they lose against Australia. France to see off England, for this year at least, in the Five Nations' Championship - coupled (in hope rather than expectation) with a Welsh revival.