Aussies move to fight Packer

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THE Australian Rugby Union will today discover whether they have a chance of preventing their players from leaving to play for Kerry Packer's professional World Rugby Championship. In a meeting in Sydney, the ARFU will present its leading players with contract offers. The future of the All Blacks will likewise become increasingly clear tomorrow when the New Zealand RFU puts forward its own offer.

An official curtain of silence had been drawn over contract negotiations in Australia and New Zealand until yesterday's completion of the Bledisloe Cup series, leaving rumours to circulate that the game would be bound up with Packer's cheque book from thereon in. Yesterday, after New Zealand had beaten the Wallabies 34-23, no one was prepared to deny them.

When asked if the match would be his last in a Wallaby shirt, Phil Kearns, the Australian captain, said: "I have no comment to make about that." In a post-match address to the crowd, however, Kearns said: "I hope whatever happens in the future, you will continue to support us." As if by response, Phil Harry, the ARFU president, also addressed the crowd, saying: "We saw today the kind of performance that money cannot buy."

Afterwards, Sean Fitzpatrick, the All Blacks captain, reacted in an unusually testy fashion when repeatedly questioned as to whether he or any of his players had signed a WRC contract, though eventually he said that they definitely had not. This, however, contradicts Andy Haden, the former All Black, who is working as the New Zealand representative of the WRC. He declared yesterday that most of them certainly had.

The meetings over the next two days will clearly play a large part in determining the future. As Fitzpatrick said: "It's up to the individual - now it's a professional deal - to look at his options and to see what's available."

The developments in the southern hemisphere are certain to influence the decisions of players in Europe as there has been a dialogue between players around the world since the World Cup finished. The possibility of a mass defection of players is one that the RFU is facing up to, and last week Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, said that even if they were to go, it would be business as usual. "We would fill the hole," he said. "You may take 150 people out of the top of our game, but there are 150 aspiring players jumping for a chance. It would be a year or so before we all went off to Twickenham to watch a new set of players and it would be a test of people's resolve, but I would take it on."

The RFU is, however, doing its utmost to avert this scenario. After a meeting with senior players last Thursday, the estimated figure that members of the England squad would each earn has risen from the pounds 30,000 first suggested. "You could say that pounds 60,000 is very achievable," a senior RFU member said yesterday.

Further negotiations with the England squad have not yet been organised as Colin Herridge, the RFU committee man closest to the players, explained yesterday. "Our problem is that there are so many people away on holiday - people involved in sponsorship - that we've got to be a little bit patient, and the players recognise this. However, I really don't think we're far apart."

The validity of the WRC, meanwhile, continues to be questioned in both hemispheres and any attempts to legitimise it have fallen foul. The company has an address, but at the address there is no office. In its listing at the Australian Securities Commission there is not a single director named.

Quite whether Kerry Packer is involved at all is not confirmed either, as the Australian media magnate has not once gone on the record on the subject. What now appears certain is that it was Ross Turnbull, the former Wallaby prop fronting the operation, who approached Packer and not the other way round.

The exact whereabouts of Turnbull, himself a man of considerable wealth, has also been a mystery since his name first became linked with the issue. He has also remained conspicuously silent, which is strange since barely a day goes by without a committee man somewhere in the world pointing out that his sums simply do not add up.

The rare occasions on which he has gone public, via a telephone call to the Sydney Morning Herald, have been to counter the most ridiculous of rumours. The WRC players would be forced to live and play in Malaysia, the Australian press trumpeted one day last week. No, came the phone call, they most certainly would not. Exactly who will be playing where, and how much they will be earning, will, however, all become a lot clearer in the next two days.