Lord of the ring masters

Owen Slot talks to the man who organised the world rugby circus of 1983
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The Independent Online
WHILE the future of world rugby union has been played out in recent weeks, one of the most interested observers has been David Lord, the Australian entrepreneur, who himself attempted to change the future of the game 12 years ago. Lord spent six months organising a rugby circus and, he says, was "98 per cent there. What is going on now is only an extension of what I did in 1983. I would have thought that it would work this time round."

Lord required 208 players for his circus and he hit his target having had only five players turn him down. "Had there been pay-TV then, the game would have turned professional with me," he said. "The problem was that terrestrial TV networks were worried that traditional advertisers would not advertise on a channel that showed a professional rugby circus. That's just not a problem now."

Lord expected the World Rugby Championship, headed by Ross Turnbull, the former Australian prop, to succeed. "I see it as a natural progression. I do think there is a general loathing among most players to leaving traditional rugby, but they know that they deserve what the WRC is offering. Only if the unions could match the WRC financially would the players have stayed, but I doubt very much that they can afford to match it in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and probbly even England."

In South Africa, however, they clearly did, returning the power in the struggle for the control of the game into old hands. Lord believes that there was one particular flaw in the WRC package which may have swayed the players against it. "There is a lack of credibility in the idea of moving players to play for another country if they didn't get selected for their own. The public wouldn't accept that - it would take all the nationalistic feeling out of the tournament - and the players wouldn't want it either."

However, Lord believes that the traditional administrators should never have had to struggle to keep control of the game. "Rupert Murdoch put all that money into traditional rugby, but the rugby unions were so busy patting themselves on the back, they didn't think to sign up their own players. If the unions lost control, though, they would only have themselves to blame. They've had 100 years to sell the game, but they've spent all that time looking after themselves. Even on this occasion theyseemed to be moving too slowly. The news of the circus broke a month ago and it has taken all this time for them to react."

Lord says that attitudes to a professional circus have changed since his own failed attempt. "People accept professional rugby is here to stay now, it's just a case of how much they are beng paid and who it is who is paying them. There was so much bad feeling back then. The players had been fantastic, keeping mum about it, but Bobby Windsor, the Welsh player, spilled the beans and after that all hell broke out. No one has been more pilloried or ostracised than I was then. Lepers, communists and terrorists have been treated better. I found it staggering that people you have known all your life suddenly thought you were the arch enemy."

Twelve years on, Lord is involved in the golf world. "I've got my hands full with what could turn out to be the biggest amateur golf tournament in the world," he said. "Because of it, I've not been able to get involved with the rugby circus. But it's fascinating stuff. The beautiful part of this whole saga is that back in 1983, Ross Turnbull was deputy chairman of the ARU and was doing his best to stop my circus. Ross is a bloody good bloke. I haven't seen him since he started working on the other side of the fence, but when I do, it will certainly be entertaining."

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