MPs try to stop public funds for rugby union

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The Independent Online
The House of Commons National Heritage Committee yesterday recommended that the Government denies rugby union any further public funding at any level and from any source until it ended its discriminatory practices against rugby league.

This would deprive union of funds from the national lottery and could place in jeopardy the redevelopment of Cardiff Arms Park for the 1999 rugby union World Cup. It would also deprive local clubs of local-council or Sports Council grants to improve their facilties. A definite effect of the report will be an Inland Revenue investigation into the earnings of purportedly amateur rugby union players.

Only last month the International Rugby Board, rugby union's world governing body, agreed to allow the readmission of former union players from league after a three-year suspension but yesterday's report in effect demands completely free movement between the codes. "Although. . . the decision on wheher a game should be amateur or professional is a matter for the game's administrators and players, it is a different matter when the decision impinges on players of another game," the report states.

So the special meeting the IRB had already arranged for Paris in August to discuss amateurism will have to have another item on its agenda. Rugby union in Britain has received around £9m in public funds since 1991, though the Rugby Football Union said yesterday the only grant it directly received was an annual £70,000 towards its coaching budget of £4m.

The Welsh Rugby Union has announced grandiose plans for a new Arms Park which would be dependent on massive grant-aid from the Millennium Commission. "It would be rather unfortunate if the WRU, or any other governing body, were barred from receiving public funding," Edward Jones, the union's secretary, said. "After all, rugby union is widely accepted as the national sport of Wales and there are more than 70,000 people playing the game under our jurisdiction."

The MPs' opinion was strengthened by the IRB's own acknowledgement of the widespread abuse of amateurism and union's willingness to accommodate sportsmen who had been professionals in sports other than rugby league. Union's defence of its anti-league stance is that it is its only protection against its talent being bought up.

This argument was rejected by the committee, who heard from Maurice Lindsay, chief executive of the Rugby Football League, that only 8.1 per cent of players signed by professional league clubs over the past 10 years had been from union.

The RFU secretary, Dudley Wood, also gave evidence. He said: "This committee was inspired by the activities of the rugby league supporters' group in the House of Commons. I was about the last witness and they had clearly made up their minds before I appeared."

The Heritage Secretary, Stephen Dorrell, will be expected to respond to the committee's conclusions within a couple of months. "It is extremely unlikely that the proposal to put a stop to public funding would be accepted by the Government," said Wood optimistically. "Having said that, the regulations to which the Heritage Committee take exception are International Rugby Board regulations and we are part of the IRB. We are a self-financing sport and a grant of £70,000 out of a budget of £4m on coaching is welcome but very small. We are spending over £60m on our ground and have no help from any other source in funding that investment."

Rugby league inevitably gave a warm welcome to a report which backed up the case they have been arguing for decades.

Rodney Walker, the chairman of both the Rugby Football League and the Sports Council, said: "The report comes as no great surprise in its conclusions and it is consistent with the views that many people have held, certainly in rugby league.

"My hope is that the National Heritage Committee's report will give added impetus to the mood for change that clearly exists with some members of the Rugby Union.

"I hope it will enable them to encourage others, who have been previously reluctant to recognise the need for change, to face up to their rules covering rugby league players."

A spokesman for the Rugby League, Neil Tunnicliffe, said that the recommendations were significant for the code's expension attempts in new areas, like Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where potential players with rugby union backgrounds could be deterred by the threat of a ban.

Ian McCartney, the Labour MP for Makerfield and a member of the All-Party Rugby League Group, also welcomed the recommendations. "The RFU have been found guilty and sentenced to capital punishment," he said.

The group, through the Wakefield MP, David Hinchcliffe, is also pressing ahead with a Sports Discrimination Bill - another means of compelling rugby union to change the habits of a lifetime in its relationship with the other code of rugby.