Enter the market forcer

Paul Trow meets Frank Warren, who is transforming an old-time club
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The Independent Online
Frank Warren was in full flow when the phone rang. He paused in mid-sentence; nobody spoke or moved. "That'll be our next signing," he quipped, and the assembled hacks and camera crews dissolved with laughter.

Whether it was Martin Offiah or Jeff Probyn ringing up to check on the small print of their playing contracts was never revealed. Thanks to Warren and his associates, though, the smile has at last returned to Bedford, at 110 years of age one of rugby union's oldest clubs yet long encrusted in gloom and mediocrity.

When the professional era dawned last winter, many of the more fashionable sides promptly tooled up with multi-million pound cash injections from sugar daddies and corporate sponsors. But, as usual, things looked bleak for poor old Bedford.

They had retained their Courage League Two status despite finishing bottom of the table last season. However, therewere insufficient funds, few class players on the books and little collective momentum beyond the enduring loyalty of a sizeable membership and the cheerfulness of the welcome at Goldington Road. To put it bluntly, they were not much of a catch.

Then a funny thing happened and Bedford suddenly found themselves at the epicentre of rugby's Brave New World. Warren, better known as Britain's leading boxing promoter under the banner of his Sports Network partnership, takes up the story.

"I've always been very keen on rugby," he said. "It's a bit like boxing, physically very tough but with a lot of mental pressure as well. Rugby players need a similar level of fitness and reflexes to boxers, and like boxers they're generally good guys.

"I like watching it on television, and recently I've been lucky enough to go to a lot of the Five Nations' matches. So once there was talk of professionalism, I could see that if rugby was developed and facilities were put in place for the public, and the marketing was done correctly, then it could be an even better game. Over the next five years I think we're going to see some super club rugby to rival what is on offer in the southern hemisphere."

Logically, the next step for Warren, a north London lad made good whose background is chalk to rugby's big cheeses, was to acquire a club. The sport, as he saw it, cried out for his type of expertise, the skills which enabled him 15 years ago (when still in his 20s) to gatecrash what he describes as boxing's "cosy cartel" and establish himself as a can- do purveyor of sporting contests and TV entertainment.

His initial target was first division Sale, in the suburban hinterland south of Manchester. "We had a few talks with them but it didn't work out," he said. "But one good thing which came out of it was Paul Turner, their player-coach. I was really impressed with him and when we got involved with Bedford, it was a major coup that we could persuade him to join us."

Not only is Turner, a former Welsh international fly-half, central to Bedford's new structure, in which Sports Network has a 50 per cent stake, but so is Geoff Cooke, the former England manager who has been appointed director of rugby.

Warren's financial commitment, which has attracted Cooke, Turner, Offiah, Probyn, the former Wales full-back Mike Rayer (plus more signings still in the pipeline) and ITV's former head of sport, Bob Burrows, as chief executive, is reported to be in the region of pounds 2.25m over five years.

"To be honest, I think it's going to cost a lot more than that," laughed Warren. "But this is the perfect location for a growing rugby club. It's got a great catchment area, it's easy to get to and there is no real rival sporting attraction for miles around." Not even Luton Town? "Well, doesn't that prove my point?"

He is prepared to be patient for success, "though I would like to think we can gain promotion within two seasons. Running a rugby club is not cheap and eventually these backers will be looking for a return on their investment. If you consider the influential people now involved - Sir John Hall, Chris Wright, Nigel Wray - in my view the Rugby Football Union should tap into their expertise. But there is also a lot of dissatisfaction.

"It's sad that the pounds 34m debt at Twickenham has become baggage around the clubs' necks. I recently attended a meeting of the senior clubs and it's quite clear that if the RFU don't get their act together and sit down with us all to thrash out the future, then in 12 months' time there could be a breakaway. We need to get rid of the blazer-and-badge mentality which also used to exist in boxing, but there's a whole range of issues which need to be discussed from what compensation the clubs will receive for releasing players for England to the negotiation of television deals.

"I'm not convinced the RFU have got the best deal they could from Sky for the Five Nations and if I were them I'd get me involved in negotiations. After all, that is something I do know a bit about."

Warren's initial decision to get into rugby came at Don King's birthday party earlier this year. "Bob [Burrows] and I'd had a few drinks and it seemed liked a good idea," he said. "It still does."