Catt embraces professionalism

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

STEVE BALE

Mike Catt yesterday became the first England player to declare himself a full-time professional under rugby union's new dispensation but his captain, Will Carling, greeted the new season by doubting if anyone very much would follow Catt in giving up his day job.

In Carling's case, this is understandable since he has a lucrative income from his own company, which advises business executives on leadership. In Catt's case, giving up a marketing job in Bath which he had been doing only intermittently was easier.

On the other hand, he will have to hope his form picks up from the World Cup since being dropped from the England side will now entail not only lost dignity but also lost income. The squad have already reached agreement in principle with the Rugby Football Union on a package that guarantees a minimum pounds 40,000-a-year to those who keep their places throughout.

Injury could become inconvenient as well. Still to be determined is what would happen in the event of problems such as caused Jeremy Guscott to miss England's 1993-94 campaign. How would Tony Underwood, who will miss the first month of the season while recovering from a post-World Cup operation, fare if payments were made on a match-fee basis?

"It's going to be a culture shock for a lot of players, because we can't expect whoever pays will allow us to come and go as we have done," Carling said. "Some players will dedicate themselves to playing and training but I would advise people to carry on work. We are talking about a tiny, tiny percentage at the top of the game and I can't see it's going to filter down that far."

Carling was at Twickenham to help launch the ninth season of the Courage Clubs' Championship - an ironic presence given that he and other senior members of England's recent World Cup party have been complaining about the league's inadequacy ever since the crushing semi-final defeat by New Zealand.

"I want England to compete on a world stage and, in order to do that, we have to replicate provincial rugby in the southern hemisphere," he said.

"We need to focus the top players in fewer clubs, to play a more competitive game, which is played in Europe as well. This will allow us to get close to replicating international rugby on a regular basis, or at least make the transition to international rugby a little easier."

The European development will have to wait but it is critical - with pounds 20m of television money on offer - to the First Division clubs' capacity to add their own contracts to those of the RFU. This season the first four divisions remain at 10 clubs each, playing each other home and away, but the senior clubs have accepted the need to reduce the top flight to eight clubs in order to accommodate a fully fledged pan-European competition.

Until then, clubs lack the finance to sustain professionalism and yesterday the RFU warned that it would not help those who overreached themselves. "There are insufficient funds in the game at present to pay players in any significant amounts and it has to be said in this new commercial world the RFU will not be in a position to bail out any club that jeopardises its existence by excessive payments," Bill Bishop, the union's new president, said.

The beefed-up RFU executive will reconvene next Thursday for the first time since the International Board meeting. A meeting of the general committee on 22 September will come just before the IB council gathers in Tokyo to flesh out this week's historic decision. A special general meeting of clubs in mid-October will then pass the new regulations into RFU statute.

This season the Courage league will consist of 1,185 clubs in 102 divisions. Yesterday the sponsoring company, recently taken over by Scottish & Newcastle, reaffirmed its commitment to English rugby (which has consisted not only of the championship but a sizeable contribution direct to the England players) and also acknowledged the need to respond to the change to professionalism even though its contract still has two years to run.

"It is quite probable in the current circumstances that the RFU will wish to change the shape of the contract and we would be happy to take part in such discussions, because we too appreciate neither the world nor world rugby can stand still," John Nicolson, Courage's marketing director, said.

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