Lessons that have not been learnt as history repeats itself

Dave Hadfield believes that the Rugby Football Union's present intransigence is bred of the same kind of autocracy which split the game more than a century ago
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The Independent Online
If long-term consistency is the sporting virtue to be prized above all others, then the Rugby Football Union has it in trumps.

If Will Carling's old farts are showing an inability now to deal with the reality of change, then they have a 101-year-old precedent for their recalcitrance. The threatened schism between the RFU and its leading clubs carries uncanny echoes of the events that led to the birth of rugby league in 1895.

The myth that rugby league came into being purely because of the single issue of broken-time payments to compensate working-class players has been largely debunked by recent research.

The broader picture of the split of 1895 is one of a desire among the more successful clubs, who were concentrated in the north of England, for more autonomy. Those clubs were already paying their players through back-door arrangements and recognised that they needed regular competition against each other to generate the income that was required.

The RFU's attitude to broken-time payments was merely a symptom of its determination to maintain its control and not allow the initiative for deciding the future shape of the game to be seized by northerners, who were not imbued with the amateur ethos.

All the things that the rebel clubs wanted before the 1895 split, notably leagues and the abandonment of restrictive amateurism, have come to pass in rugby union over the past century. But the refusal to allow the new breed of rebel clubs to exercise autonomy within the RFU can be seen as a rearguard battle in the same war.

The RFU has accepted professionalism, but still wants to retain its power over the very different organisations that professional clubs will have to become, while the clubs know that it is hopelessly ill-equipped to do so.

In the lead-up to the 1895 schism, there was deep concern over the wealthier, less scrupulous clubs poaching all the best talent, just as there has been in rugby union in the 1990s. Those clubs, in turn, regarded the RFU as incompetent and run by establishment backwoodsmen.

There was even a figure who could be regarded as the Cliff Brittle of his day, the Rev Frank Marshall, who took on the role of witchfinder-general, rooting out incipient professionalism. It was the intransigence of his faction that led to 22 clubs setting up their own Northern Union. Some of the consequences of that move should give the RFU pause for thought now.

Rugby union in the north of England never recovered from the shock to its system, and association football, which had resolved the tensions between amateurism and professionalism, stepped into the vacuum.

The breakaway league became a largely self-contained, exclusive body, because smaller clubs could not compete financially with the bigger outfits which had taken the plunge.

Over the next decade, the rules under which the Northern Union played adopted most of the distinguishing features of rugby league, starting with reducing teams to 13, abolishing line-outs and allowing open professionalism.

The reason for the changes in the way the game was played was simple. The new game was dependent on attracting crowds in order to pay its way, and it had to be more attractive to watch if it was to survive.

What rules, you have to wonder, will professional rugby union clubs eventually play under? If they are to generate the money they need, they will find, as another group of men who bridled under the RFU's autocracy 101 years ago found, that it will have to be worth watching.