Leicester, the Courage League champions, took club rugby in England a step closer to out-and-out professionalism yesterday. The Tigers had just got their claws on a fifth major sponsorship - a pounds 750,000 shirt deal - when their president, Peter Wheeler, a key figure in pay-for-play talks between the First Division clubs and the Rugby Football Union, suggested that the new season could see club players being paid.
"The Rugby Football Union have set a precedent already by entering negotiations with the England players," said Wheeler, "so it seems quite right that we should go ahead and pay our club players."
Any such deal at club level would be governed by what the International Board meeting on amateurism decides in Paris later this month, precipitated by Kerry Packer's proposed professional circus and Rupert Murdoch's pounds 350m southern hemisphere tournament, but Wheeler already sees a possible pay structure.
"Player payments ought to be uniform and across the board in the First Division, and that is what the clubs are aiming for. The fact that [the threat of] Packer has gone away doesn't alter the problems. This is a watershed, an opportunity to get it right."
Whether a satisfactory pay structure could be put in place for the start of the new season in three weeks is another matter, but one club official predicts that the 1996-97 season will be completely professional.
There is no doubt that big clubs such as Leicester could afford to pay players. Yesterday's deal with the Korean electronics firm Goldstar brings their total of major sponsors to five. They are getting pounds 1m from the Alliance and Leicester towards the pounds 2.5m cost of their new stand, and there is also financial backing from British Gas, Carlsberg-Tetley and a local firm, BSS. It is a matter of time before they are followed by England's other big clubs.
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