League exiles freed for return to union

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Rugby union yesterday opened the way for rugby league professionals to return to their first love - albeit after a decent interval - but the more profound and pressing issue of professionalism itself has, typically, been left for another day, even though it is now officially recognised that trust funds and the like are professionalism by another name.

Profound decisions, at the very least relaxing the amateur regulations, had been expected at the meeting of the International Rugby Board that has been going on in Bristol for more than a week. But when it finished, the evil day had been deferred to a special meeting which has been called for Paris in August under the new IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset, president of the French federation.

Then, at last, a report of the IRB's amateurism working party will be considered and - so we were assured yesterday - acted upon. In the end the delay was unavoidable once Vernon Pugh, the outgoing chairman and a beacon figure in this by-now interminable debate, had been let down by rugby unions great and small which had failed to make a contribution.

"Many have not responded," he said tartly. "It has not been entirely easy to get the unions to concentrate their minds on recognising that we are at a stage where some important decisions need to be taken, otherwise the decision-making capacity will be taken from us.

"It didn't surprise me. There is a certain discomfort with the pace of change. With the advent of Rugby World Cup that pace of change has accelerated and is accelerating, and it's not entirely easy for anybody who has been in the game for 30, 40, 50 years to come to terms with what is happening or indeed, without the wisdom of Solomon, to know what should be done."

This is a deserved admonition because it is urgent that the IRB finds a way of asserting control before what remains of the amateur regulations ends up being recognised by everyone only in the breach. It is widely assumed - and was more or less confirmed by Pugh in Bristol - that players around the world do whatever they can get away with or else whatever their unions surreptitiously allow.

The working party, chaired by Pugh and consisting of Lapasset, Fred McLeod of Scotland and Rob Fisher of New Zealand, met only three times but still reached some vital conclusions of principle. "All agreed that the pressures on and within the game were such that, like it or not, the game would inevitably become fully professional if it were not better regulated," Pugh reported.

"All agreed that the present situation brought considerable and sometimes deserved criticism of our administrators of the game. All agreed that the commercial pressures were now such that, important as indeed is the amateur principle, the major threat to the game is its takeover by those commercial interests. This makes it all the more important that we get right the solution to the amateur debate."

What is clear, though, is that the sacrosanctity of amateurism has been sullied for ever. "If we don't limit the pressures on players it will be impossible to prevent the game being one where effectively they are being paid," Pugh added.

To this end he has put up for debate a reduction in domestic playing seasons to seven months, a restriction of the number of international and other matches and also of tours. In addition, there would be full reimbursement, as canvassed by the New Zealanders, for all financial disadvantage and expenses - that is broken time, the very question which caused the rugby league breakaway 100 years ago.

By coincidence the IRB has decided to allow former league professionals to play again up to club level, but only after a three-year stand-down period - which makes Stuart Evans, the ex-Wales prop, immediately eligible for reinstatement, though he would not be permitted to play for Wales again.

Although this lowers one of rugby union's few defences against rugby league and so was quite a momentous change, it was not enough for David Hinchcliffe, the MP who has been pursuing rugby union for its "bigoted discrimination". Although no union has yet imprisoned anyone for going north, the member for Wakefield has worked out that "the proposed sentence roughly equates with that for gross indecency or grievous bodily harm".