A deal to shake the world; Rupert Murdoch's contract with the southern hemisphere will usher in a new age for rugby union

Chris Rea says that a multi-million pound move will change the shape of rugby
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The Independent Online
EVERY hundred years, it seems, rugby union is hit by a volcanic eruption of such cataclysmic proportions that it irreversibly transforms the game's landscape. In 1895, it was the breakaway of the northern clubs to form rugby league and on Friday, 23 June, 1995, it was the official signing of the death certificate of amateurism.

As we all know, the concept had been clinically dead for some time. But at the historic press conference at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, Dr Louis Luyt's persistent use of the euphemism "for development purposes" when asked how Rupert Murdoch's millions would be spent, could not alter the fact that the top rugby union players in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia are hence forward going to be extremely wealthy young men as a result of the $550m deal with the southern hemisphere unions.

Nor was the significance of the timing of the announcement, on the eve of the World Cup final, lost on anyone. It had been carefully designed as a pre-emptive strike against rugby league's agents signing up players immediately after yesterday's game. Joost van der Westhuizen, the target of at least two English clubs, will in all probability be preserved as a Springbok and even Jonah Lomu might now be having second thoughts.

Murdoch's campaign has been breathtaking in its strategy and audacity. By targeting rugby league first he spread panic in the union ranks, and within a matter of hours of buying up one sport had the other knocking at his door. In the space of just two months he has therefore secured enough product to fill hundreds of hours of television. One by one, his competitors are falling by the wayside. ITV are unlikely to retain their rights to show southern hemisphere rugby, which includes British touring sides overseas, and their sole rugby property now is the World Cup, which they hold until 2003. With BSkyB having a foot in the door of the domestic game through their weekly coverage of club rugby, it is not unreasonable to expect that their offer for the exclusive coverage of the Five Nations' Championship, when the BBC's contract expires in two years' time, will be one that cannot be refused.

Of immediate concern to the game in this country, however, is how the home unions will react to this initiative and how they will vote at the International Board meeting in Paris in August. Dr Luyt, president of the South African Rugby Football Union, was quick to stress that the agreement with Murdoch's television companies complies with the IB's regulations on amateurism, and the confidence of Vernon Pugh that the two hemispheres can move forward in peaceful co-existence and harmony, together with his belief that last Friday's announcement has done the game in this country a favour by forcing the issue on amateurism, is a welcome sign that common sense will prevail.

As chairman of the IB, Pugh will have a considerable influence on the Paris meeting. The reflex reaction to the news by some of the more conservative elements within the four home unions was predictably bullish, with talk of irreconcilable differences between the hemispheres. Not only is such talk reckless, it would be suicidal.

If the World Cup has done nothing else, it has exposed the limitations of the European game. The two poorest contests in the tournament involved European sides; Ireland and Wales in their pool match and England and France in the play-off. It is a sobering thought that if a composite XV were selected of the best players in the World Cup, there would not be a single representative from the four home countries. The unvarnished truth is that Europe needs New Zealand, South Africa and Australia more than these countries need Europe. Jack Rowell acknowledged that when he pleaded for more contact between the two groups. Pugh's revelation that the four home unions, the traditional power base of a domestic game riven by discord and weakened by division in recent years, will soon be replaced by the committee of the Five Nations, is a major step in the right direction. What is now required is an influential and united body with a vision of the future and the power to turn it into reality.

Louis Luyt is regarded by many as a scoundrel whose megalomania will ultimately destroy the game. To others, he is a saint whose foresight and extraordinary entrepreneurial skills are saving the game from itself. What he does possess is a powerful commercial sense allied to a basic instinct for survival and the unwavering support of the most successful rugby nations in the world. That is all the security he needs and in the unlikely event of the IB rejecting the fait accompli placed before them in August, then it is too bad. A world game without the three most powerful countries would be unsustainable.

So whither Europe? England and France, in terms of fiscal and natural resources, are the two countries most favourably placed to stay with the leaders. They could conceivably take the view that going over to Lansdowne Road or up to Murrayfield on a wet February afternoon and winning by six penalties and a drop goal to two penalties was not the ideal preparation for a summit meeting with the major powers in South Africa, in which case they could abandon the international championship to its fate and turn instead to the southern hemisphere to sharpen their competitive edge. That is neither likely nor practical. The Five Nations' Championship may not be all that relevant in world terms but it enjoys massive popular appeal and is therefore of major promotional significance and is vastly rewarding financially.

Much more likely would be the establishment of a major European competition involving the four home countries, France and Italy, either at club or provincial level or perhaps an amalgam of the two. That would offer yet more grist to Murdoch's mill on the logical assumption that having secured the rights to all meaningful competition in the southern hemisphere he is equally interested in televising European rugby. Not only would he then be able to screen the annual showdown between the Five Nations' champions and their southern equivalents but he could televise a similar contest between the respective provincial champions.

There is inevitably a down-side, and while the rich will become considerably richer, the poor may well be turned out into the streets. For all Dr Luyt's protests that rugby in the Pacific countries will be protected and developed, it is hard to believe that this tripartite agreement can benefit countries like Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa, whose international aspirations will surely be thwarted by the increased competition between the big three. There will simply be no room to accommodate those weaker countries in such a crowded schedule.

Regrettably, too, it would seem that the British Lions who, since the inception of the World Cup, have been living on borrowed time, are moving closer to extinction. One of the most appealing reasons for maintaining Lions tours was the financial benefit to the host country, but with pounds 35m a year pouring into New Zealand, South African and Australian coffers for the next 10 years, not to mention the revenue from sponsorship, advertising and gate receipts, that is no longer a pressing need. Furthermore, now that the global game operates on a four-year cycle there is additional pressure on the individual countries to undertake major tours as part of their World Cup preparation. The burden on the players, even allowing for the fact that they can now expect substantial remuneration, is close to intolerable as it is. The Lions, I suspect, are therefore an endangered species.

Whether rugby union as we know it will follow them into extinction will depend very much on the decisions made in Paris in August. There can be no question that Friday's announcement was an event of monumental importance to the game's future and one which could materially alter it. Alan Hosie, Scotland's representative on the International Board and a former international referee of distinction, is in no doubt that if the game were to go fully professional and players were to be paid for playing it, there would be no place for the ruck or the maul. "When money is the prize," he argues, "some players will stop at nothing in their efforts to achieve victory. No professional game in the world allows play to continue when the ball is not visible and when acts of extreme brutality can be perpetrated unseen by the referee."

In that case, rugby union would move even closer towards its league cousin. But perhaps that is the ultimate goal in Rupert Murdoch's grand plan, a unification of the two codes to create a game of truly global proportions that would be capable of competing with football as mass entertainment. Louis ... are you there?

Is the game up? Seven figures from both sides of the rugby divide peer into the future

Steve Smith

Former England scrum-half

THREE months ago, we were reading about how all this money was going to rugby league and that we'd lose all our players. Now the situation has been flipped around. If the laws on amateurism are changed, as they have to be, then we'll get to keep all the wonderful players we've been watching in the past month.

It can only be good for rugby union to have this sort of money, especially for the southern hemisphere countries, as they are more under threat from rugby league than we are. This brings a natural threat to the northern hemisphere and we've really got to get our act together; standing still now would be going backwards. I hope we get an influx of money too, otherwise we'll be stuck in an amateurism time-warp.

But having seen the Berlin Wall come down and apartheid end, isn't now the time for another great achievement: to get the two rugby codes together? There's a lot of bridges yet to be crossed, and we could never do it without getting the northern hemisphere rugby unions involved, but I would love to see it.

Mike Burton

Agent

I'VE known that this deal has been going on, but it is just another example of the direction that the game is taking. What it means is that there is a lot more money coming into it and if the players are to be allowed some of it then we will keep some of those who would otherwise have gone to American football or league.

I am commissioned by rugby league clubs to secure the services of players but I don't deal with rugby league alone; if Jonah Lomu wanted to play for the Dallas Cowboys, then I could help him. I arranged a meeting with him, in the foyer of his hotel in Pretoria. He sat there with his Walkman on, I mentioned the sort of figures he could expect, started talking millions to him, and his headphones suddenly fell off his ears. He said that we could talk again when the World Cup is over.

The Murdoch deal does have quite a bearing on the situation which is why I believe that someone like Lomu might wait till the end of August - until after the next IB meeting - to see what happens. It's only sensible because everything's so uncertain.

Dennis Easby

RFU president

IT WILL be interesting to see how the money will be divided. If this means paying some of their rugby union players money for promoting the game, and if that means that they will keep some of these players rather than see them leaving the game and playing a different one, then that can only be a very good thing.

It is going to be a challenge to the northern hemisphere because it may help to improve the game in the southern hemisphere even more. But while everyone says that this means we will fall even further behind, you must remember that England have beaten all the three leading southern hemisphere countries in the past 18 months. I do see the change as a challenge for us, but that is only a good thing for the game.

So I see no objection to those countries forming this three-way competition; it is something they have been trying to do for some time. But is Rupert Murdoch going to have some control over the rules and the way the game is played? If so, he is bound to have a great influence over rugby union down there.

Simon Halliday

Former England threequarter

IT WAS only a matter of time before something like this happened, though I find the size of the deal quite staggering and I also find myself thinking that if I'd played rugby a decade later then I may have made a great deal from it!

Rupert Murdoch is not going to be able to merge the two rugby codes, though. Of course he can run the two games together, but if he thinks he can make them one then he's barking up the wrong tree. Certainly it is not on the agenda time-wise, but it would be so difficult to achieve.

We have to address things quickly here. However, I think our rugby administration are so hopelessly prehistoric in their pace of movement towards the inevitability of professionalism that we are going to get left behind. We have to have far-reaching changes to reproduce the class of state and provincial rugby that they have in the southern hemisphere. We'll probably, instead, have an inquest into the England side when in fact we have got the players out there, but they are just not exposed regularly to the pace we've seen in the World Cup.

Martin Offiah

Rugby league international

THE money is still going to the rugby unions and not to the players. If the rugby unions want to, they will be able to do more for the players financially and so will be able to keep them in their game. However, if this means that they are paying them outright then it will be a completely professional game and it will remove any further obstruction for rugby league players wishing to play rugby union.

This takes us into a grey area. The money is going into the sport, but if all the new-found wealth stays with the unions, if it isn't distributed among the players, then those players will be even more frustrated and will be more likely to change codes.

There is a general feeling that there is a hidden agenda in all this, that Rupert Murdoch will be bringing the two codes together. This appears like the obvious next step, but you can't tell. Personally, I don't think they should merge. I think there is room for both games but I am perfectly well aware that Rupert Murdoch, for his own reasons, may think quite the opposite.

Ray French

Rugby league commentator

I BELIEVE that this deal will hasten the day when the two codes come together. Union needs this exposure as a direct result of league's massive TV exposure down under. As rugby league correspondent for Today newspaper - owned by Rupert Murdoch - I may be biased, but I think that Murdoch is very shrewd and that he senses the two games coming closer. I think he has pinpointed rugby as the TV sport for the A,B and C socio- economic groups.

Figures such as JPR Williams have been predicting a merger for some time - although line-outs would be the first thing that would have to go. In the shorter term, there will be an interchange of players between the two codes. Someone like Martin Offiah could play for Wigan between March and October and then play for, say, Bath. There will be nothing to stop players doing that.

The other possibility is that Murdoch could propose to both games that we have a four-match Test series, league against union, two games under each set of rules. It would be the biggest rugby event of all time.

Steve Simms

Halifax rugby league coach

I SEE Rupert Murdoch's incursion into rugby union having fewer far-reaching consequences than most people envisage, and I believe that the two codes remain a long way from meeting. The money from the southern hemisphere deal will be good for their game and it could help them to hang on to some of their players. But I don't think it will affect rugby league. Union is a boring game that will not attract big enough television audiences.

They will have to change so much about their game to make it more attractive. Even union players admit that they are bored by the game as it is at the moment. Any amalgamation between the two games would have to be basically under rugby league rules.

Under that set-up, rugby union players would not have half the impact that people imagine they would. They would be too heavy and slow to be able to compete against league players. There isn't a rugby union side in the world that would beat even a half-way decent league club team if they were all playing together under the same banner.

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