Money maul at the end of easy street

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The Independent Online
A LL CREATURES great and small who earn a bob or two for their sporting endeavours will want to congratulate rugby union players on this their first Sunday as bona fide professional sportsmen and encourage them to enjoy it . . . Relax and put your feet up; sigh the contented sigh of men who have received honest recompense for their labours; go for a walk and don't wince when you pass the church; you can smile at the vicar now; go in, even.

Clear consciences take a little getting used to, particularly when they arrive like a bolt from the blue, and the stunning effect of the International Rugby Board's unexpectedly bold decision has lasted all week. It was all the more remarkable for the historic coincidence it created.

I refer not to the clash with Mr Michael Barrymore's announcement (the closet he came out of smells a good deal sweeter than that in which rugby players have been crammed for years on end) but to the centenary celebrations of the Rugby League. Exactly 100 years before the IB's move, give or take a day or so, the Northern Rugby Union broke away from the southern clubs and what eventually became known as the rugby league was born.

Had last Sunday's attitude in the IB meeting prevailed in August 1895, rugby would have remained one game, been professional and, although the Football League was already up and running, may have been soon fit to challenge for the hearts and minds of the nation as our main game. What the shape of rugby would have been today we can only imagine. Then again, we can only imagine how the game will develop when the commercial forces now at large in the game reach their full potential over the next few years.

When an edifice as soundly constructed as the rugby union's monument to its own amateur eminence is brought down from within, you have to expect a considerable amount of flying masonry. Judging by the bewildered squawks from all parts of the game over the last seven days, no one is sure where the next breeze block will land. This uncertainty is the result of waiting until the last minute to implement the inevitable.

Nevertheless, it was a brave act of bullet-biting and removed from rugby union the hypocrisy that was corroding its soul. There were still those keeping up the pretence last week by asking how clubs could bring in a pay structure with the season upon them. The Welsh handled that question with commendable honesty. The Welsh RFU chairman, Vernon Pugh QC, whose international leadership has shown great vision, said at a press conference in Cardiff last Thursday: "I have to say our clubs have sufficient experience of paying players to know they have no money above what is already available. I expect that their budgets are fully expended for the coming season."

The question should be not how can the clubs pay the players but how can the players justify being paid a living wage when the number of competitive games the top clubs play is so comparatively low? Unless, for the average player, the transition is to be merely from illegally highly paid amateur to legally low-paid professional, the game needs to increase the number of meaningful games that will appeal to the paying spectator and the television viewer. If there was ever a comfort zone in rugby union, it no longer exists. The money will have to be earned the hard way.

Our new professionals might care to look over the fence at their new cousins, once removed, in rugby league, which is a game that is also undergoing serious change in a manner that smacks of improvisation. In order to accommodate their World Cup in October, the start of the present season is being compacted somewhat. While the union boys have had one outing, Warrington will today be playing their fifth match in 15 days. It is made more ludicrous because the game is against Wigan, which will send a shudder on Warrington's behalf through anyone who saw Wigan's destruction of St Helens last Monday. This is a professional rugby team of the highest standard, and one which every recruit to the paid ranks should aspire to.

League players are not unhappy with the union move into professionalism. The gates to union that have been barred to them may soon be open. They may even get an apology for the appalling way some of them have been treated through the years, but I doubt it. Meanwhile, there will be some banter. Wales's World Cup campaign will be advertised on posters showing Jonathan Davies in action with the words "Come and see a real dragon fly". There is another poster they are not sure whether to use. It shows a piece of hard league action over the words: "Not a game for flankers".

Provocative, perhaps, but understandable. More understandable than the old union diehards who are predicting the end of the game and ask: "Who will want to play rugby for fun any more?". Do they think they have the monopoly on sports played for fun? Are there not millions of footballers, cricketers, golfers, tennis players, even rugby league players playing for fun. Sham-amateurism has been laid to rest; the arrogance may take a little longer to expire.

T HE TEST series between England and West Indies which ended in a tie last Monday rarely lost its ability to enthrall during its 11 weeks' contribution to our summer. And as the sixth Test petered out to a tame and friendly end it was difficult to recall a series that apportioned the honours so abundantly and evenly.

Both teams began with so much to lose. England were beset with doubts and a deep rift between their supremo, Ray Illingworth and the captain, Mike Atherton. West Indies had come straight from being beaten at home by Australia. Defeat for either would have been confirmation of calamity. But with two victories each, one apiece gained in spectacular fashion, the teams enjoyed their share of renaissance glory as fortunes swung from match to match.

Had the wickets in the final two Tests at Trent Bridge and The Oval not been so bland and batsman-friendly, the fluctuations might have continued. But there was rarely a realistic chance that the hard-working bowlers could have tilted the series one way or another. A drawn series became inevitable as we settled back to watch some excellent batting from the incomparable Brian Lara and a few restorative innings from Atherton, Graeme Hick and Graham Thorpe.

Kudos all round: Illingworth and Atherton are the best of friends and colleagues; England look forward confidently to South Africa; West Indies go home with pride restored; reputations have been rescued; the fans are happy; the Mexican wave has worn itself out; happiness is everywhere. I'm not sure it was the perfect ending to a serious sporting contest, but all that lot seem satisfied.

MOST sporting sponsorships have some sort of obvious promotional connection but I can't work out why Pedigree Chum is sponsoring the horse trials at Burghley this weekend. If I were a dog I'd be very suspicious.