Loose heads, big wallets, grand ideas

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I N THE midst of an upheaval that is rattling the foundations of the game, rugby union has suddenly come face to face with a new type of player who can best be described as the loose-head proprietor. It is a role that demands a high level of fiscal fitness and a measure of determination to apply large and urgent amounts of money to the most pressing needs of the club of his choice; and there are a rapidly increasing number willing to take it on.

The aggressive nature of these gentlemen makes it advisable to explain that the term loose-head, when used outside the scrum, refers not to mental instability but to a state of freedom in the cranium area that acknowledges no allegiance to the restrictions of the past and possesses a desire to get on with the future with the least possible delay.

Unfortunately, this bristling ambition is not entirely in step with rugby's leadership, who have been trying this past month to adjust to a world they have long abhorred. Given their deep-rooted revulsion to professionalism, they probably feel as if they are racing into its embrace at twice the speed of light. Viewed from outside, however, it is like watching the attempted acceleration of an arthritic snail.

While clubs are acquiring patrons willing to invest millions to ensure they are not left behind in the rush, the Rugby Football Union is insisting on maintaining this season's moratorium on paying players. But a situation in which the clubs are immobilised and only the England players can immediately receive the rewards of the new world is not likely to go unchallenged.

Sir John Hall, of Newcastle, a loose-head proprietor of unparalleled accomplishment, is to meet the RFU at Twickenham tomorrow to discuss matters of mutual interest, among which will be the 120-day registration rule. Since Sir John's compendium of sports grouped under Newcastle United's banner recently acquired the old Gosforth rugby club, this rule has not been helpful in securing Gosforth's escape from the relegation zone of Courage League Division Two. By the time his acquisitions, led by Rob Andrew and Tony Underwood, are able to play it might be too late.

A legal challenge to this ruling cannot be ruled out but a friendly chat may remove the risk of bloodshed. After all, when the RFU's commission on professionalism produced its blueprint last Wednesday it proposed the reduction in the registration time from 120 to seven days from next season. It would not be out of context in this time of mind-blowing revolution to bring that rule change in on 1 January.

Certainly, the RFU ought not to be unaware of the power that rests with the clubs. Sir John has met the top Courage League teams and they appear to be agreed on those priorities necessary for them to take full advantage of the new opportunities to develop the game.

Almost on a daily basis, new money is flowing into the clubs. Bath are about to announce the name of a backer mighty enough to keep them at the forefront of high rollers; a millionaire has appeared in the ranks of the Saracens who appears to be richer than Saladin himself; and Birmingham City's proposed amalgamation with Moseley will bring the resources of David Sullivan's empire into Midlands rugby. Another vital porn in the game.

Where is the sense in ordering this tide to hold itself back? The rugby unions should examine football to see what is likely to be their future. The football associations remain the governing bodies and run the national teams but the clubs have had their own organisations for over 100 years and, as the Endsleigh League clubs proved on Friday, make the most of their autonomy.

A more realistic approach is evident in Wales, where the WRU has given full support to Cardiff's historic signing of Jonathan Davies. There may be a touch of self-interest here but anything that improves the clubs must eventually benefit their union. The rich businessmen who funded the transfer are said to be anxious to finance the return of other Welshmen from rugby league. They are not being discouraged.

That this co-operation with the providers of private money should be happening across the border from where clubs are operating under a restraining order is less difficult to understand if you study the RFU commission's report. Its proposals, particularly that concerning the move of the Five Nations' championship to May, have been put forward without any consultation with the other unions, never mind the clubs. They will no doubt be allowed an opinion eventually, but this will mean more delay.

After so many years of an obstinacy that guaranteed they would be flat- footed and totally unprepared for the inevitable revolution, the RFU still conduct themselves as if it was their game alone. It is not a pose in which they can glory for much longer. Rugby is being bought lock, stock and barrel by some people who care about it and some who don't. Those that care are committing themselves and their money to the clubs. They have a power yet to be tested but they didn't get where they are today by letting bumbling amateurs stand in their way.

IT IS by no means certain that the game of football is in safe hands. Fifa is supporting the latest gimmick for increasing the number of goals - making the goal bigger. The controlling organisation of the game, having already shown an unhealthy interest in such hair-brained ideas as having four quarters instead of two halves, is now considering making scoring easier by giving strikers a bigger target.

The BBC television programme Here and Now last Wednesday ran its own experiment, staging a match in which the goals were a foot higher and a yard wider. Lo and behold, goals did seem easier to score and there was a 120 per cent increase in shots at goal.

They also produced the statistic that man's average size has increased from 5ft 4in in the last century, when goal size was determined, to 5ft 91/2in in 1995. But since when have goalkeepers been average, either physically or mentally?

L R Rouse was the goalkeeping star at the end of the last century and he was a big man. When Sheffield United won the FA Cup in 1902 their goalkeeper was Billy Foulke, who was a towering 21 stones.

It's a heavily flawed argument. If you chopped 1,000 feet off the top of Everest more climbers would reach it. But where would be the achievement? Goals are the triumph of football and surely even Fifa can see the folly of devaluing them.

O NE section of the commu- nity which unreservedly welcomed the RFU's proposal for playing the Five Nations in May were the bookmakers. Home international rugby is already in the top five of sporting betting. Moving the matches to May would bring them even more business.

I trust the unions are taking note. When you pay 10 per cent tax on a horse-racing bet, 1 per cent goes to the Horseracing Levy Board. When you bet on another sport, that 1 per cent goes to the bookie. I suggest that rugby has a word with its friends in parliament. Now they are professional, the unions have to be aware of all potential revenue.

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