Comment: Worldly, but not wise

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WILL come as no surprise to followers of sport that reservations are being expressed about the staging of rugby union's 1995 World Cup in South Africa. Internal strife in the republic, as one might expect, is the reason.

But this is not a question of the world's rugby authorities showing a long-overdue sensitivity to political instability in South Africa, it is purely a battle for control of the tournament itself which, inevitably, comes down to money.

The directors of Rugby World Cup Ltd are so enraged by the recently leaked proposals of Louis Luyt, the chairman of South Africa's organising committee, that they summoned him to Paris this weekend to explain himself. They have also asked 11 other nations to present contingency plans for staging the competition.

Luyt, a combative millionaire businessman with a very powerful voice in the South African Union, has been accused of 'hijacking' the tournament. Instead of the original plan for matches to be played at 14 venues, Luyt has proposed that only six grounds should be used. This would provide a greater concentration of gate money, which would go to, among others, the Transvaal Union and Ellis Park in Johannesburg, where the final is scheduled to be held. Is it a co- incidence that Luyt is president of the Transvaal Union and chairman of Ellis Park?

Luyt's other ideas include the staging of double-header matches and the subsequent raising of ticket prices. He believes that by streamlining the competition security can more easily be tightened and that the scheduling of games between the weaker nations effectively as curtain-raisers to contests between seeded countries will heighten the profile of the rugby world's minnows.

Luyt has a habit of getting his own way, but Rugby World Cup Ltd seems determined that he should not on this issue. ('The Rugby World Cup belongs to the world,' a spokesman said last week.) It has appointed Nic Labuschange to represent its interests in South Africa and to rein in Luyt and, by asking other nations to present alternative plans, it has shown a willingness to take the ultimate sanction.

There would be a bitter irony for the South Africans, on the verge of hosting their biggest and most lucrative sporting event, if they had the tournament snatched away from them. But when big money becomes a big part of an 'amateur' sport, such squabbling is inevitable.

This is a further blow to rugby union's worldwide image. The most pertinent financial issue should be how much of the money generated by the World Cup ought to go to development of the game in the townships, or to provide new initiatives among blacks (rugby is still largely a white man's preserve in South Africa). And the real issue remains: should the world's rugby authorities have been so eager to take the tournament there in the first place?