England players sign pounds 38,000 contracts

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The England players who tomorrow play Western Samoa at Twickenham agreed last night to accept Rugby Football Union contracts that will make them up to pounds 38,000 each this season - thereby delivering a savage, possibly fatal, blow to a rebel circus being planned by the Australian entrepreneur, Ross Turnbull.

Turnbull has told his target players around Europe that he would inform them today whether his plan for a city-based competition beyond the fringe of rugby union is able to proceed, with up-front payments of between pounds 20,000 and pounds 30,000 also due today as evidence of his viability and good faith.

But without anyone from the England team his credibility would be seriously undermined and, in any case, the England players have been independently advised that Turnbull's sums - as much as pounds 600,000 over three years - are fanciful. On the other hand, leading English players are now looking at earning six figures from their official rugby involvement alone.

Will Carling, the England captain, had made it clear to his players that he would be signing the RFU document yesterday and had no intention of allowing his life to be taken over by Turnbull. "They would effectively own you lock, stock and barrel, and tell you where and when to play; you could end up playing anywhere," he said.

"I prefer to stay here and play rugby for Harlequins. No one can predict what will happen in the next year but if a club get into Europe and there are Rugby Union and club contracts, top players will be doing very well and still have flexibility in their life. That's more appealing than selling everything to play where and when they decide.''

Carling said he had not tried to influence others to follow his lead, so his endorsement of the RFU contract was deliberately less than ringing. The deal is believed to involve a straight payment of pounds 24,000 to each squad member, with an additional pounds 2,000 per match - amounting to pounds 38,000 if England can persuade Australia or South Africa to play them at the end of the season. The contracts are back-dated to 1 September.

Carling, like his manager, Jack Rowell, is concerned that the financial debate is diverting England from the immediate priority: tomorrow's match. "I haven't spent a lot of time talking about money but I have spent a lot of time answering questions about money," he said.

"There is obviously a huge amount of interest and that distracts them. I have to try very hard to make sure the game is the most important thing, because it would be a disaster if we didn't get it right.''

On the scale of disasters, an English defeat by Western Samoa would not register. The renewed attempt from English rugby league scouts to buy up the islands' finest would be marginally more disastrous, however, and yesterday Pat Lam - who has rejected an offer or two in his time - appealed to his players to withstand the pressure that cost Samoa half-a-dozen after the World Cup.

n Rob Andrew's club, Newcastle, bottom of Courage League Two, need no longer fear relegation this season. There will be two up and two down between League One and League Two, but the Rugby Football Union's competition sub-committee, given the task of increasing League Two from 10 to 14 clubs, opted against a play-off between the bottom club in League Two and the fifth-placed in Three.