Brakes a break for the game

Chris Rea believes the RFU moratorium has done union a favour
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The Independent Online
WHILE rugby's proudly held traditions are crumbling to dust from New Zealand to Newcastle, the Rugby Football Union's announcement that there will be a season-long moratorium on professionalism below international level is to be welcomed. The more radical and uninformed elements will see it as yet another example of prevarication by those fossilised relics at headquarters, but someone had to apply the brakes before the game was completely submerged by the fevered activity of the last fortnight.

Not every club in Britain, after all, has a patron like Sir John Hall to sweeten the largest pill the game has ever had to swallow. Doubtless Newcastle, by no means united in their enthusiasm for the new venture, will not be deflected from what promises to be the most widespread recruitment drive since Kitchener. But now at least there will be some check on their activity.

What the Newcastle initiative has done, however, is to highlight the problem facing the game as it prepares to meet the twin challenges of paying its way and its players. If rugby in Britain is to have a ghost of a chance of sustaining professionalism, it cannot be done by the recycling of existing revenue. It must generate new money.

In Newcastle's case, as with several other clubs, it will be from the pocket of a wealthy benefactor. Nice work if you can get it, and fine at local level. But not even the most philanthropic could support the international game. New money will therefore mean new competitions attracting yet more sponsorship. Either that or the sponsorship of what were hitherto sacred cows. Chief of these is the Five Nations' Championship which, despite the recent addition of a trophy, has remained resistant to seduction by potential sponsors.

One of the reasons for this, of course, has been the attitude of the individual countries who have been pursuing their own sponsorships and have been jealously protective of their interests.

The introduction of a sponsor for the International Championship would seriously devalue the package offered by the individual unions to their sponsors and would further dilute the benefits and appeal to companies which already have to share their space with the sponsors of the players.

In Scotland the Royal Bank of Scotland, sponsors of the SRU since the early Eighties, are coming increasingly into conflict with Famous Grouse, supporters of the national squad. The same will happen in England once the players pledge themselves to their new paymasters.

The Five Nations' Championship, along with the All England Championships at Wimbledon, is one of the few bigsporting events untainted by commercialism, and as such is a hugely desirable property. It would attract blue-chip applicants, but given the size and the ravenous appetite of the beast feeding off the sponsorship, the cost of securing it would be astronomical. On the other hand, the property is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it and, in the present climate, there seems to be no limit to the amounts sponsors are willing to put into rugby union.

By putting up the Five Nations' for sponsorship, the home unions would save themselves and their players the inconvenience of organising and playing in yet another competition. They already have more than mind and body can accommodate, and when the proposed European Cup competition (for which the sealed bids were submitted on Friday) comes to full fruition next season with the entry of England and Scotland, the schedule will surely have reached saturation point. As this competition will be perceived by many to be the salvation of the international game in the northern hemisphere, it will enjoy a high profile and will occupy an increasingly important place in the domestic season.

Even so, the search for other opportunities to exploit will continue until there is not a day in the calendar free nor a trophy in the cupboard unbranded. And if the Calcutta Cup itself seems not sufficiently appealing for a sponsor, then rest assured that there would be few baits more enticing than an extra- curricular game for rugby's oldest trophy between the oldest of international foes. What am I bid for that?

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