England delays clubs turning professional

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The Independent Online

Rugby Union Correspondent

The Rugby Football Union last night put off the inevitable when its executive imposed a moratorium until next season on the introduction of professionalism in English rugby below international level. Thus does the union hope to avoid a pay-for-play free-for-all in which some clubs would collapse.

Whether it will be able to keep its thumb in the dyke for that long is another matter, given the speed of developments in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, where they have no qualms about the open - or rather professional - dispensation agreed by the International Board in Paris last month.

The Welsh Rugby Union chairman Vernon Pugh, who led the IB to its historic decision, says a moratorium would be impracticable and undesirable in Wales. In England, Leicester are already gearing themselves up for professional rugby, the Bath secretary has declared himself against a moratorium, and Newcastle Gosforth (now plain Newcastle) have overtly embraced professionalism by their amalgamation with Newcastle United Football Club.

In addition, John Jeavons-Fellows, one of the RFU's IB representatives, questioned the viability of a moratorium in the wake of the Paris meeting. He is now one of seven people appointed to an RFU commission which will decide on the new structure of English rugby and report to a special general meeting of clubs at the end of October. By that time the IB will have long since met again in Tokyo to add detail to the decision it took in principle 12 days ago.

The lucky few who represent England can expect a reasonably handsome pounds 40,000-plus from this season's activity. But at least until September 1996 the next rank of club players - realistically restricted to those who ply their trade in the First Division - will not be permitted to benefit in the same way as their counterparts elsewhere.

Thus, while the southern-hemisphere rugby unions are simply getting on with living in the new real world - the New Zealand RFU yesterday announced it would welcome back rugby league defectors without any stand-down period - the English are still talking about it.

"The Rugby Union commission is to conduct a full review of the regulations, rules and structures to be applied to rugby union following the Paris IB declaration," the RFU said in a statement. "The principal considerations are international and national competitive structures; regulations applicable to participation in open rugby; a professional code of conduct; finance and marketing; preparation of legal documentation and amended rules.

"The commission is authorised to consult as widely within the game as is practicable. Essentially, its work is fast-track and is to be unencumbered by the normal process of committee-work. It has exceptional authority and its findings will form the foundation for the Rugby Union in England and England's participation in international rugby in the future."

Tony Hallett, the new RFU secretary, will chair the commission, which will otherwise consist of five RFU committee men and Richard Mawditt, the chairman of Bath. Consultants in law, tax, the European Union, accountancy, equal opportunities and contracts, as well as public-relations advisers, are also to be appointed.

By this comprehensive means the union hopes to make the change from amateurism to professionalism both workable and affordable and there is no doubt that the majority of clubs to whom the new regulations are likely to apply will be sighing with relief. By next season new sponsorship deals, increased television money and a European competition should be in place.

But it can only be a postponement, and in the meantime the competition for players' professional services is bound to intensify. Yesterday, for fairly obvious reasons, the 7ft 1in England Under-21 lock Richard Metcalfe changed his mind about transferring to West Hartlepool from Newcastle.

However, Newcastle's intention to go fully professional with resources provided by Sir John Hall's business empire will presumably have to be put off for a year. If the RFU insists on absolute adherence to its current regulations, Newcastle would not even be able to employ its players under the guise of rugby development officers, since in England - unlike in Wales and most of the rest of the rugby world - no paid club official may play for his club.