Marlow are happy to pay dues

England may train on their turf but rugby's new world is still an age away. Steve Bale reports
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The Independent Online
England's players have begun training again, the frequency of their meetings at Marlow evidence of an appropriately professional commitment to what is now becoming an officially professional game.

Marlow, incidentally, is where a deflated Dennis Easby, then Rugby Football Union president, announced the reinstatement of Will Carling last May at the conclusion of the "old farts" affair. Carling and company will converge on Buckinghamshire about once a fortnight, play half a dozen Tests, and be paid up to pounds 40,000 for their season's work.

In this case the juxtaposition of club and country produces a nice contrast. On the one hand, we have the evidence of how rugby has changed - but only for the few chosen by the England selectors. On the other, if English rugby means the game as a whole rather than the England team, it is no different in practice today from how it was when England first came to Marlow last year.

On Tuesday England trained behind closed doors because of the kerfuffle over Carling. On Monday Marlow had trained - in public, if the public had been interested - on precisely the same turf at the Riverwoods ground.

"They're faster than us and don't drop the ball; apart from that, there's not a lot of difference," Steve Blake, Marlow's grandly titled chairman of communications, said. Blake plays scrum-half, and occasionally hooker, in the third XV so he may have been joking.

An England player who keeps his place all season can expect what amounts to a match fee of pounds 6,500, and the men of Marlow are very happy with their match fees, too: they pay pounds 5 a week without quibble. Neither do they quibble that their international counterparts receive so much while they must give.

"No one begrudges them what they've got," Dave Vickers, the Marlow captain, said. "We know the pressures they face but there's not a single person here who wouldn't swap places. Our guys put in as much commitment as they can but when they roll up in their Fiestas and see Victor [Ubogu] coming along in his yellow Lotus it does open their eyes.

"We were already exposed to the contrast before they went professional, so we're used to it and we're not resentful. But since they've moved to being paid they've taken on an almost unapproachable status. I no longer feel as if I could just go up and talk to them. They are a very elite group."

Which is what you would expect of professionals, and anyway Marlow's practical aspirations have nothing whatever to do with professionalism other than in a figurative sense. Specifically, they want to develop their already well-endowed ground in conjunction with a five-year campaign to reach the giddy heights of National League Five South.

As they are now in the Southern Counties League (having last season lost their place in South-West Two after having two points docked for inadvertently fielding an unregistered player), in effect the eighth division, this would require promotion three times in five years.

The notion of paying players while this is going on is not one that crosses the minds of those in authority over Marlow. How in the world, even in this affluent part of that country, could they afford it? Yet, far as they may be from rugby's new professionalism or even its Fifth Division South, they can foresee a day when they might just have to.

For now, the first team are lucky to get 200 people watching them but there is potential of a different kind: Marlow provide a game of rugby for more than 600 people of all ages every weekend. "We are a major club in terms of numbers; I doubt if there's a bigger club in the country," said Peter Bradley, who at 44 doubles as club chairman and third-team lock.

"But at our level the incentive to play for Marlow comes because you live in or near the town. We play the same game as the England players but the difference is they are professional athletes and for us to pay players would require a steady, certain income we don't have at present."

Marlow RFC costs around pounds 70,000 a year to run, roughly two England players' contracts. The club has five pitches, a superb Thames-side location, and was responsible for the early rugby education of Paul Burnell, the Scotland prop, and two England A players, Matthew Dawson and Justyn Cassell of Northampton.

But with them, and with the occasional presence of the England squad using its facilities, the big-time connection ends, even if Marlow officials are wondering if and when their amateur club may have to consider a modest step towards professionalism.

"We are ambitious and we will need at some point to accommodate players financially," Blake said. "I wouldn't have a problem with that at all." Nor would Vickers: "The freedom to pay players has very limited impact on us, but that's not to say it won't develop as we move up the league."

In that case spare a thought for Marlow's coach, Lindsay Renwick, a London Scot who won one cap against Romania in 1989 and realises regretfully that he was born too soon. "It's interesting that one per cent of the playing population effectively dictates the rules to the other 99 per cent . . . but it's still a shame I missed the bandwagon."