Money strikes at the heart of the union

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The Independent Online
RUGBY players throughout the world are trembling, mostly with excitement, on the brink of earning opportunities that would have blanched the ruddy cheeks of their forebears. But before they experience the pleasures of a rich and honest living there are agonies to be undergone while they choose between the bewildering array of offers from the various factions jostling for control of rugby's future.

Although just as confused as anyone who has been trying to follow the offers and counter-offers as they flow through the media, I can offer one piece of constructive advice to the many fine players caught up in this dilemma.

New Zealand's vast and frightening star Jonah Lomu appears to be having as much trouble as anyone in making up his mind whose millions to accept. They should wait until he makes his selection - then sign for one of the others.

Meanwhile, we can only marvel at the speed in which more than a century of fanatical guardianship of the soul of rugby union, last bastion of the amateur ethic, has been transformed into a financial free-for-all. That's what happens when a famine ends suddenly and you would have to be a highly jaundiced cynic to delight in the sight of the leading lights of this once haughty game squabbling over money like a scrum of Calcutta urchins.

It is only a couple of months ago that a high-ranking member of the Rugby Football Union reiterated: "The players assure me that they don't want to be paid for actually playing." That was always a masterpiece of self- delusion and has had to be hastily revised. At the moment, the players want to be paid even for thinking about playing.

This historic upheaval among sport's most steadfast ranks has taken place in the fleeting six weeks since the Rugby World Cup final and the International Rugby Board appear dumbfounded at the pace of events. Had the game kept intelligent command of the slowly but clearly developing advance of professionalism over the past few years they might be in a better position to survive the tornado of change now giving rugby the buffeting of its life.

It doesn't help that the storm was started from within by rugby union leaders of the southern hemisphere. Although the war between the rival organisations of Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer over the television pickings to be gained from rugby league had been blazing away for weeks, the unions of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand appeared not to heed its lessons. As soon as the World Cup was over Murdoch offered them $550 million for 10 years of television rights and they've only just returned his arm.

Inevitably, Packer retaliated by attempting to scupper the Murdoch contract by buying up every decent rugby player in the world. It means that there are four choices available to top rugby players, Lomu being one of them: 1 They can join Murdoch's rugby league operation in Britain or Australia; 2 They can join the Australian Rugby League now sponsored by Packer; 3 They can sign up for Packer's rugby union circus, the World Rugby Corporation; 4 They can stay with their present unions for a fee yet to be disclosed but is bound to contain a large confusion allowance.

The question of what happens to rugby if all four recruit a fair share of players can only be addressed with a wince and the only solution that will save the game from disintegration is for the International Board to get a swift grip of the proceedings. They need no more incentive than the sight of rugby league ripping itself in half to spur them into re- establishing an authority resilient enough to take control of a newly professionalised game.

It may require some unpalatable steps. One of the more interesting moves of the Packer lot has been to approach several of the Welsh converts to rugby league such as Jonathan Davies, John Devereux and Paul Moriarty. Recognising that Wales has more strength as a rugby market than it has as a rugby team, the Packer men are willing to pay the huge sums necessary to buy the league men back to union. If Wales can do it, so can any country and a totally free rugby market will have arrived.

If the Packer coup continues to crumble, the same logic will surely apply. Anyone who wants to harness the traditional contribution of Wales to rugby cannot ignore the losses they've suffered to league. If Packer can't get them, the union should try and a club as powerful as Cardiff, who are said to be offering their top players pounds 30,000 next season, might be eager to help.

All this, however, depends on the will of the union game to adapt. There were few signs of this in Wales last week when two players withdrew from the Welsh squad to visit South Africa this month because they are going on holiday. Two others were dropped because they were already on holiday when a training session was called. Rugby union needs to learn that it takes takes more than the presence of money to turn players or their administrators into real professionals.

THAT rugby union is a mere beginner in the open distribition of riches into the pockets of its participants was emphasised by the publication of certain executive salaries last week. The biggest earner of all is not a chairman of a privatised utility, nor even a pop star, but Bernie Ecclestone who organises and promotes Grand Prix races.

Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill might be the ones doing the nose-to- tail business on the track but Bernie is the one with the bumper-to-bumper pay packet. Last year, according to the Labour Research Department, he earned nearly pounds 31m which is an increase of 1,647 per cent on the previous year. It is obviously more profitable to get up speed in motor racing's corridors of power than it is on the track.

On a lower but equally surprising note, it was also revealed by Labour Research that football club directors have been creeping up on the pay rails. The highest paid director in football is Bill Fotherby of Leeds United with an annual salary of pounds 238,995. Martin Edwards of Manchester United is second with pounds 214,000.

I can work out what players do, or are supposed to do, to earn their money and I have a good idea what managers do, and coaches and physiotherapists and even turnstile operators.

But what can a director do for pounds 250,000 a year that didn't used to be done for nothing by a man with a fat belly and a watchchain? No doubt those paying more for their football watching next season will be asking.

BOXING reared up in horror last week when two fighters threatened the lives of their next opponents. One was Chris Eubank and the other was American Oliver McCall. Eubank we can disregard as a wise old ticket-seller but McCall, who fights Frank Bruno on 2 September, went over the top with his threats to put Bruno into a coma in retaliation for the brain damage suffered by his friend Gerald McClellan at the hands of Nigel Benn recently.

The British Boxing Board of Control and the fight promoters expressed their abhorence at these "outrageous comments". I expect they'll cancel the fight.