Do I not like that . . . Wake up to a global game: Derek Wyatt, the former England international, explains why rugby union needs to come out into the open

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The Independent Online
IT IS time to face reality. Rugby union as an amateur sport has been living on borrowed time for the past decade. Whether or not the plans announced last week by the former French coach Jacques Fouroux for a world professional league for top union players bear fruit after next year's World Cup, one thing is certain: the game is going global.

The reason the Australian Rugby Union first proposed a World Cup to the International Board in 1984 (not knowing that at the same time the New Zealand RFU was also making similar overtures) was the threat of a professional circus led by the entrepreneur David Lord. The threat was pooh-poohed by the home unions. A professional circus? Pigs might fly. Yet Lord had signed up the leading players of the northern and southern hemispheres to play in South Africa.

Sir Nicholas Shehadie, president of the ARU in 1983-4, would know. He was so frightened by the prospect of his great side breaking up - Aussies had just completed their first Grand Slam here - that he called the leading players away to a weekend retreat and they showed him their contracts. He was mortified. Australia had only just begun to pick up the pieces from the implications of the Packer Circus which created a modern professional cricket business. Rugby union in Australia could not stand a repeat.

The answer was a World Cup to be played in Australia in 1988 to coincide with the country's bicentenary. This would keep that great side intact and at the same time it would allow them the opportunity to earn money from the game. The IB was completely nonplussed, or at least the four home unions were, but as two countries had asked, they reluctantly agreed so long as Australia and New Zealand worked together on it. The compromise result was the first World Cup of 1987.

This year the ARU is preparing its bid for the 1999 World Cup, to counter the combined efforts of the Welsh and the English, and, in due course, the New Zealanders themselves, who have yet to declare. The ARU wants to play the final in its Millennium Olympic Stadium which will be ready by 1999.

While the World Cups set in motion a southern-northernsouthern hemisphere scenario for the first three tournaments, no decision has been made as to which hemisphere the next one will be held in, despite Wales and England already feeling they are home and dry. Moreover, only three sides will definitely qualify for 1999 - the two finalists and the winners of the third-place play-off. If the tournament is staged outside those countries, then the host nation would then pre-qualify. You can see why Wales and England have put in a joint bid; on current form neither will automatically qualify.

The implications are disturbing for the players because their international workload could double. The pre-qualifying tournaments will become as important as the finals themselves. Consequently, we will see the embryonic stages of a permanent international rugby calendar. The players will cope because the IB is going to allow the game to go 'open' with each country determining its own interpretation. It has to. There is no other solution. The consequences will be dramatic but that is not the players' fault.

Going open will bring an end to the appalling discrimination shown in this country by the rugby union establishment against rugby league. Believe it or not, it is not possible for anybody over 18 to play, please don't laugh, 'amateur' rugby union on a Saturday and amateur rugby league on a Sunday, or vice-versa.

This 'regulation' has rightly been challenged by the House of Commons. David Hinchliffe's Sports (Discrimination) Bill was the only private member's bill to gain all-party support (including the Sports Minister, Iain Sproat and the Shadow Minister, Tom Pendry).

Of course the rugby fraternity tried to wreck it by planting a series of quite banal amendments. It has survived, just, but it will be defeated, not because of yet more arcane tactics, but because on its third reading on 21 October it is too low down the batting order, as it were, to make it to the statute book.

Don't worry, though, it will reappear. It is just as well Parliament is interested; the response of the establishment of sport has been deafeningly quiet. All the players ask is that the game itself matches the time, commitment and, yes, professionalism of their efforts. It manifestly does not.

Derek Wyatt is author of 'The International Rugby Almanack 1995'

(Photograph omitted)