Amateur status attacked by MPs

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The noose appeared to be tightening around the neck of rugby union's amateur status yesterday as MPs gave a sympathetic hearing to rugby league's complaints against its rivals, and questioned tax officials on the nature of payments to rugby union players.

Gerald Kaufman, the Labour chairman of the select committee examining the issue, told Inland Revenue officials: "What you have revealed in answer to my questions is that the word `amateur' is simply not accurate when applied to people who play rugby union. It is at best a term of art and at worst simply bogus."

The officials - who are investigating payments in rugby union - told the committee that players' claims to be amateurs were "irrelevant" when it came to assessing whether they gained taxable earnings from the game. An official of the Personal Tax Division of the Inland Revenue refused to give specific instances, but mentioned the kinds of payment that would be assessed as taxable profits: money for loss of earnings, fixed expenses payments in excess of actual expenses, signing-on fees, and the provision of cars or housing. Mr Kaufman commented: "I take it that those examples all must exist somewhere for you to think of them so easily."

The committee heard "a plea for fair play" from Maurice Lindsay, chief executive of the Rugby Football League, who claimed that the rugby union ban on players who have played professional rugby league was "discrimination".

He described the recent concession - to allow rugby league professionals to play union after a "stand-down" period of three years, but only below national level - as "total balderdash".

All the members of the National Heritage Select Committee who spoke yesterday appeared to support his plea. John Maxton (Lab, Glasgow Cathcart) said: "Someone who has played American football at the very top can play rugby union, while someone who has played rugby league for money cannot. We think it's sheer hypocrisy."

If the International Rugby Union Board, at its meeting in August, concedes some form of professionalism, it will find it harder to defend the ban on those allegedly tainted by "pay for play".