A last hurrah before the revolution

RUGBY WORLD CUP 1995: On the eve of the tournament, Steve Bale in Cape Town sets the scene for a month in a country with much to prove
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The Independent Online
How perverse it is that at the very moment when rugby union is facing the future with as much uncertainty as it has known in all its existence, it should be its World Cup that has become its one great certainty.

After all, this is only the third staging of an event which is only eight years old and to which the home unions, in their conservatism, were adamantly opposed until it was made clear to them that if they did not join in New Zealand and Australia would go ahead without them. It is now said to be the third-biggest sporting event, exceeded in world-wide popularity only by the Olympic Games and the football World Cup.

The entire rugby calendar has started to go in four-year cycles, from one World Cup to the next, with absolutely everything - Five Nations' Championship, Bledisloe Cup, even that endangered species the Lions tour if we are to believe the doom-mongers - subordinated to one surpassing ambition.

The 1995 World Cup in South Africa kicks off in Cape Town tomorrow with the game in better health than ever, at least in the sense that it is played in more countries than ever, but at the same time widely supposed to be under greater pressure than ever.

For one thing, there is the pressure from players who used to be simply eager but are now desperate to get their hands on some of the huge funds rugby union is generating. If they have to give a professional commitment, so the reasoning goes, why should they not be treated accordingly?

Anyone who has been in Durban watching England train over the past week will by now appreciate the physical and mental cost of this commitment, and to be here among all these young men from 16 countries who have had to take time off work - or even, in cases such as Dewi Morris's, give up work altogether - is to realise that amateurism's last ditch is no longer a tenable place to stand.

Indeed there is a palpable sense at this tournament of the end of one era and the beginning of another, a sense that once the World Cup is over and rugby union has shown itself to be a thrilling, genuinely global spectacle that every last amateur, or rather pseudo-amateur, restraint will be released.

This could be as dangerous, or at least as unsustainable, as the current position where all we ever seem to do is wait for the next report or the next working-party or the next meeting. The special meeting of the International Rugby Board in Paris in August is intended to define a new future but there are enough people here, mainly Australians and New Zealanders, who no longer believe it realistic to wait even that long.

This brings us to the other great pressure of these rugby times: the more successful this World Cup, the more perilous it may be for the game. If, for instance, rugby union gives itself as rosy a glow as it hopes, then the attraction for predatory outsiders to buy a stake will probably become irresistible.

Inevitably this comes down to Rupert Murdoch. During the past week New Zealand Rugby Football Union representatives have thrown themselves at the feet of the Australian magnate's News Ltd and offered themselves, or rather NZ rugby, to him as if he were some sort of philanthropist.

And then there are the millions Murdoch is putting into creating the Star League in Australia and Super League in England, sums that make every one of the best players at this tournament vulnerable to rugby league pay-dirt once the World Cup is over.

In other words, the more successful World Cup '95, the more attractive its top practitioners become to a corporate raider. Or, put another way, the more successful World Cup '95, the higher the pressure for rugby union to resist the Murdoch lure by bowing to the inevitable and finding a way of rewarding its players for the insatiable demands it - rugby union itself - has made on them.

All of which is about as remote from the majority of the citizens of this country as the right to vote would have been a few years ago. We are in the Rainbow Nation where most folk still live in grinding poverty, and even if they are free politically it will take a miracle to make them free economically as well.

Still, South Africa's emancipation is something worth celebrating and, whether or not the World Cup was awarded to the South African RFU with indecent haste at the end of the boycott years, this tournament gives it an opportunity to show its new, multi-coloured face to the world.

At least it would do if the Springbok team were anything other than all- white, which it has become since the untimely withdrawal of the outstanding Cape Coloured wing, Chester Williams, with a hamstring injury. It is poignant indeed that the bulk of the poster advertising around the big cities here pictures Williams, the most acceptable sporting face of the new South Africa.

It has not gone unnoticed that other participating teams with minute non-white populations compared with South Africa's - not least England - are the ones providing the specific role models for the disadvantaged kids on which Sarfu will lavish part of its share of the proceeds from the World Cup.

That said, those who now run this country have been making emollient noises, not least President Nelson Mandela himself, who said: "We want the event to bind the country into a single unit behind the national rugby team." Mandela will open the World Cup at Newlands tomorrow before South Africa play Australia and present the Webb Ellis trophy to the winners in Johannesburg on 24 June.

At the same time, he is acutely conscious of the adverse symbolism of an all-white team and, far into the future though it may appear, it is essential for the credibility of South African rugby that by the time of the next World Cup a few more Chester Williamses have emerged.

"I am advised by the minister of sport and recreation that this is the last rugby World Cup in which the majority of South Africans will not be featuring," the president said. Exactly what influence Mandela thinks Steve Tshwete has over selection is an interesting speculation but suffice to say that if Cape Town's intended bid for the 2004 Olympics is to succeed then rugby has to become less the exclusive preserve of white South Africa than it will seem over the next month.

As for the rugby itself, tomorrow's game is a useful reminder that when Australia won on the same Newlands ground three years ago they exploded the myth arrogantly put about by certain South Africans who attended the 1991 World Cup that the Springboks, then still in isolation, were the "real world champions".

Since then South African rugby has been taught a protracted lesson in humility but, even so, the weight of expectation on Francois Pienaar's team is so unbearable that even the pessimists who do not give them much of a chance will excoriate them if the worst comes to pass. It is scarcely the way to win a World Cup.

Whatever happens to the South African team on the field, however, the South African economy cannot lose. Louis Luyt, the Sarfu president, told a television interviewer before his most recent contretemps with the Rugby World Cup directors that the tournament would generate around pounds 200m of business.

This is a staggering figure that is hard to square with Luyt's stated disappointment at the numbers - about 35,000 - coming from overseas and his undisguised hostility to the gentlemen who form the board of Rugby World Cup Ltd and have in effect acted as an alternative power-base to the Sarfu president during the long months leading to the tournament.

Luyt wants the International Rugby Board formally to reassert its authority over the World Cup and to insist on proper accounting procedures for its burgeoning financial programme. Which brings us back to money and the certainty that the international players who participate in future World Cups will be richer than those who play in this one.

Much of the world - 2.5 billion people in 120 countries - will be watching and one of them, we may be sure, will be Rupert Murdoch. He may even be cheering for Australia.