Court halts challenge to Packer

Rugby Union
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When Kerry Packer resorted to legal aid in an attempt to prevent his Big Top from collapsing and engulfing his proposed professional circus he sparked another controversy in the tinder dry terrain over which the game is stumbling. Packer obtained a court order at the weekend which temporarily barred the South African Rugby Union (Sarfu) from signing contracts with the Springbok players, but during the hearing it was alleged that Francois Pienaar had acted as a recruiting agent for World Rugby Corporation (WRC) and was due to receive around pounds 200,000 for his efforts.

The claim was made by Ross Turnbull, a WRC director, in a Cape Town court on Saturday, where Judge Denis van Reenen's order prohibited Sarfu from "inducing certain South African players from breaching their contracts with WRC". Turnbull said that Pienaar, the Springbok captain, had earned the money through his efforts in persuading the other 27 members of the World Cup winning squad to sign letters of intent with the Packer-backed organisation. It provoked an angry reaction from South Africa's rugby fraternity and Pienaar could face disciplinary action.

Pienaar denied Turnbull's claims. "I didn't even receive anything regarding my expenses, and I had a lot of expenses," he said. Regarding the possible curtailment of his Springbok career he added: "Always people would want to put a knife in my back. It happened before the World Cup, it will happen after the World Cup, it will happen next year."

Last month, Pienaar led 13 players in the Transvaal team in a boycott of training sessions to press for written contracts with the province. That row brought Pienaar into conflict with Louis Luyt, who is president of Sarfu and the Transvaal union.

Turnbull said in the WRC court application that the Springbok players had reported coming under strong pressure from Luyt.

"On 3 August, Hennie le Roux indicated that players were being intimidated by Louis Luyt to conclude contracts with Sarfu and to terminate any agreements they had with WRC," the Packer application said. The court order is effective until Thursday, when further legal argument will be heard.

The courtroom drama was prompted by a Sarfu statement at the end of last week which claimed that all 28 South African players had agreed to sign lucrative contracts which would bind them to Sarfu.

The WRC has approached some 900 players worldwide, offering them six- figure sums to turn professional. But the South African, Australian and New Zealand unions have agreed a 10-year, pounds 350m television rights deal with Packer's media rival Rupert Murdoch. That, coupled with rumours that the Australian players were poised to agree similar contracts with their governing body, left Packer's plans looking doomed, so he went to the law.

The southern hemisphere unions have pre-empted any decision which the International Board, ostensibly the sport's governing body worldwide, may make on amateurism at a special meeting in Paris later this month, but whatever the outcome one man welcomes the move towards professionalism.

Brian Hanlon, Bristol's director of coaching said: "It's going to be sorted out one way or the other. The game is going professional and, at the least, it will get rid of the hypocrisy that has been around for the last five years or so. The players do deserve to be compensated for the time they put into the game and the money they raise by playing."

Hanlon has no fears about losing any of his players. He said: "I don't think any of the Bristol players have been going behind the club's back as far as signing contracts goes. We have no problems with it. But if you don't have professionalism in every country then you are going to find players from England going to play in New Zealand, Australia or South Africa. They are not going to sit here watching the rest of the world earn money out of the game."

Hanlon has no immediate plans to call his players together for a meeting, but the Wasps coach Rob Smith said: "We have been speaking to players about the Packer deal and we will be having a meeting very soon with all of them."