Hart fights to thwart the giants

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RUGBY IN TURMOIL: Two codes go to war against media tycoons' invasion that threatens a deluge of change

There is no longer any doubt that rugby union, in some important parts of its world anyway, is about to go overtly professional. The Australasians' panic-stricken reaction to Rupert Murdoch's takeover of rugby league is leading them into ever more frantic consideration of how they may withstand the media tycoon's lucre.

Once you start talking about salary caps, as the former Auckland and All Blacks coach, John Hart, is in relation to his plan for a southern- hemisphere competition which would kill off the Super 10 and exclude the South Africans, then even a laissez-faire interpretation of amateurism becomes meaningless.

Hart may intend to combat the haemorrhage of All Blacks to league but he would not make anyone a fortune - besides which his event would lose credibility by the absence of South Africa. No New Zealand province has won the Super 10 in its three years.

If Hart had his way, two Australian and six composite New Zealand sides would play on a round-robin basis in a tournament called Super Union, each composite restricted to a squad of 30 players and a salary cap of about £5m. This amounts to little more than £20,000 a head but has already gained the approval of all 27 of New Zealand's provincial rugby union chairmen, and the board of the Australian Rugby Football Union will discuss the proposal on Saturday.

Though the intention is to cash in on the lucrative Antipodean pay- to-view television market, both Hart and Bruce Hayman, the ARFU chief executive, said yesterday that their motivation was to keep rugby union out of the clutches of Murdoch's News Ltd, or those of Murdoch's business rival, Kerry Packer. In New Zealand, Sky TV is unconnected with Murdoch.

Thus Hart insists that Super Union would be complementary to New Zealand rugby's existing competitions. "This proposal is one that works absolutely within the structure of rugby," he said. "We're not trying to do a Murdoch- Packer arrangement where they're trying to take over the game. But we cannot continue to lose players."

Hayman, whose union has pronounced amateurism dead and would like it decently buried when the International Board meets in Paris in August, said: "We believe it is most important that the ARFU is seen to be in a position where any initiatives in the game stay with us."

The worst case is that a dozen Australians and up to 20 New Zealanders accept Murdoch's mega-dollars after the forthcoming World Cup in South Africa, and no international player you care to mention anywhere else would rule out at least considering an offer if it were £300,000 a year.

The contrast with the pre-season European knock-out competition announced at the Dutch embassy in London yesterday could scarcely be more pronounced. But the DIOK club of Leiden, the hosts, hope that with exposure their expanded event, running this year from 19-27 August, will eventually be automatically attended annually by the cup winners of all the leading European countries.

The Leiden tournament has been going on a four-team basis since 1988 but for 1995 it has doubled in size with the invitees including Wasps, Swansea, Boroughmuir, Blackrock College, Toulouse and Treviso, with one place to be filled. Cardiff, the Welsh champions-apparent, have asked for an invitation.

This has nothing to do with the plans being hatched by Leicester, Bath, Swansea, Cardiff, Toulouse and Brive for a European Super League. But it is clear evidence of the way rugby is moving, even if DIOK is still seeking a £250,000 main sponsor. Even that is small beer compared with the millions at John Hart's command, let alone Rupert Murdoch's.