Maggs settling into the good life

Chris Hewett talks to a young Bristol centre about the difference the advent of professionalism in rugby union has made to him over the past few months
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The Independent Online
A player's view of rugby's new professional landscape depends largely on his vantage point, and from where Kevin Maggs is standing life looks pretty good. This time last season, Bristol's promising young centre earned a crust by laying kerb stones - a hundredweight each, 600 a day - so it does not require the imaginative gifts of a JRR Tolkien to appreciate the upturn in his fortunes.

Sure, there are 22-year-old centres who command a bigger seasonal stash than the pounds 30,000 or so Maggs can expect to rake in over the course of a campaign, and needless to say the one-club local boy raised just a couple of hundred yards from Bristol's Memorial Ground is a positive pauper when you place him next to Newcastle's much-travelled midfielder, Va'aiga Tuigamala. (Five grand a week may be small change to Tiger Woods or Fabrizio Ravanelli but it makes a mighty big splash in rugby's little pond.)

None of that is of the remotest concern to Maggs, however. When you are used to spending 12 hours a day in some God-forsaken Bristol cul-de-sac with nothing but a mountainous pile of unlaid concrete blocks in your field of vision, professional rugby throws back the curtains on a very alluring vista indeed.

"Professionalism has transformed my life," he says with barely a second's thought. "Because I rarely, if ever, considered what full-time rugby might be like - my only ambition when I first broke into the Bristol Colts XV was to make the senior team - the way I live now is beyond my wildest dreams.

"Before the change, I worked for a local civil engineering firm. They were very good about my rugby, as most companies seemed to be during the amateur days; they gave me the time to go on Bristol's summer trip to Atlanta, which was a big breakthrough for me, and they would let me slip away on a Friday to prepare for a league game the following day.

"But it became difficult, inevitably. I fell out with one of my direct bosses over the amount of time I was taking off for rugby - I could appreciate his point of view because he had to pull in people to fill in for me - and frequently, I would have to work all day Sunday to make up my time. It was crazy; I'd be black and blue from the day before, aching all over. My heart would sink when I saw this huge articulated lorry dumping huge pallets of kerb stones in front of my face."

By doubling his salary with the stroke of a pen on a two-year contract - Maggs also has a share in a players' commercial fund - he has been able to move out of the family home in Horfield and switch to a place of his own across the M32 in St George. "It's not far away but it gives me some independence," he says.

He keeps in close contact with his local junior club, the formidable Dings Crusaders, and can now stand his round at the bar with the best of them. Boredom sets in now and again, but not often. "I play golf - badly, I might add - and some squash, which keeps my fitness topped up. But the sheer volume of games means you are either recovering from the last one or planning for the next. There's plenty to keep a First Division player interested."

Intriguingly, he agrees that his natural strength - Maggs is very definitely one of the most physical centres in the top flight of the Courage League - comes from getting his hands dirty in the now faraway world of manual labour. In doing so, he stands foursquare in a venerable rugby tradition that harks back to the days when every All Black forward was a farmer and every Welsh prop was whistled up from the nearest mineshaft.

"Looking back, I think the hard work I was doing before full-time rugby gave me the sort of strength you can't really develop in a gym, no matter how much iron you pump. Actually, I go pretty easy on the weights and concentrate more on my pace and ball skills. Those are the areas I need to improve. My strength takes care of itself because of all those kerb stones.

"Had the game not gone professional, had we continued on the shamateurism road with a few bob here, a match fee there, a win bonus somewhere else, I would still be a Bristol player. When I captained the Colts and Under- 21 sides, success and recognition were the things I'd set my sights on. Money didn't really come into it at all. It's different now, of course, and players have to do what is best for them financially, as well as in a rugby sense. There are no regrets, though. It's a wonderful way of earning a living."

In a sense, this season's bitter wrangle between the leading clubs and the Rugby Football Union was all about players like Maggs; young, committed sportsmen who put their bodies on the line week in, week out, without any hope of generating the six-figure incomes enjoyed by their distant cousins in the international elite. It will take time to iron out the iniquities and inequalities of the new professional era, but at least a start has been made. Kevin Maggs, for one, is happy to be part of the process.

WHO EARNS WHAT IN THE NEW MONEY-RICH PROFESSIONAL GAME

Thanks to the spin-doctored realities of modern politics, we hear next to nothing these days about the redistribution of wealth. It is not a phrase of which the modern rugby player is too fond, either; particularly those at the top end of the sport, where business is booming.

Even within the narrow confines of the 12-team Courage League First Division, the haves and have-nots are sharply divided. Indeed, the field of contrast can be narrowed further still; depending on his club, an England regular could earn twice the salary of the red rose colleague standing next to him during the national anthems at Twickenham.

Martin Johnson, the Leicester lock and new Lions captain, will earn over pounds 200,000 this season, not including lucrative endorsements from sportswear firms. His reputed pounds 120,000 a year salary at Welford Road was supplemented by the pounds 70,000 he earned as an England ever-present and will be expanded still further by a flat pounds 10,000 for his Lions exploits in South Africa. That last figure could double if the Springboks are beaten.

Meanwhile, his England second-row partner, Simon Shaw, earns rather less for precisely the same degree of activity. He, too, is an England first choice and a Lion, but Bristol, unable to match the Leicester salary structure, pay their leading lights a maximum pounds 50,000. Not surprisingly, Shaw is now on the market.

Non-internationals are also exposed to localised financial climates. Some bask in the sunshine - Bath, for example, can afford to pay their lesser names anything up to pounds 50,000 a season while others shiver themselves to sleep on pounds 25,000 or less.

And the further down the scale you drop, the colder it gets. Non-contracted players at Bristol - a League One club, remember - are given retainers worth as little as pounds 30 a week and, as a result, have no real stake in the brave new world of professionalism. They continue to hold down full- time jobs and, if they live any distance from the Memorial Ground, effectively pay to play.

Ballpark figures are difficult to calculate because every club operates on a different budget. That is not only true for the top-flight outfits, but also for the junior sides on the lower rungs of the Courage League ladder; for every goal-kicker who pockets pounds 10 a point in Durham and Northumberland One, there are others in Lancashire South or Eastern Counties Five who pocket not a penny.

This much is certain, though: the influence of money at all levels of the game will only increase. It might now be easier to uninvent the wheel than free rugby from the grip of the folding stuff.

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