Mutual mistrust that only money may cure

Steve Bale examines player relations with the authorities after the Carling affair
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The Independent Online
England rugby players have privately been calling members of the Rugby Football Union committee "old farts", or words to that effect, during all of its 124 years, so to that extent there has always been a mutual mistrust between the governed and the governors. Outright hostility is a more recent phenomenon.

Mind you, Michael Pearey, an enlightened former president, was stretching a point yesterday when he described this eternal resentment as "creative tension". There has been nothing creative about the Will Carling affair, which reached its conclusion - though scarcely a rapprochement - last night when the recent former England captain was reinstated.

On the contrary, it was destructive of the RFU's already archaic reputation, since the coterie of officers who took the decision to sack Carling have been shown to have over-sensitive sensibilities and no broader vision of the game than their own dignity.

And it was - maybe still is - destructive of England's World Cup chances, which until last Saturday morning were looking rather good. If Will Carling's team, as they would have remained whatever his personal status, go on to prosper and maybe even win in South Africa, they will feel it was despite and not because of the RFU committee.

Still, it is disingenuous of Carling and his agent, Jon Holmes, to have us believe he had anything other than the RFU committee in mind when he spoke of "57 old farts" at the end of last Thursday's Fair Game on Channel 4. But however childish and offensive, the remark did reflect an intractable difficulty of English rugby: the unstable relationship between the union and the England squad.

Perhaps Carling forgets that the RFU is responsible for English rugby rather than just the England team, and that English rugby amounts to more than 2,000 clubs and schools in RFU membership. On the other hand while the committee of 57 represent the 2,000, the England XV could be said to represent something like 50 million.

In which case wisdom is required to decide RFU priorities and the events of the past few days have not revealed wisdom as an obvious characteristic of the half-dozen men who decided to turn a minor insult into as major an issue as rugby here has faced in the 100 years since the rugby league schism.

The officers of the union have also enhanced the potency of player-power, which they would always have regarded with horror and disgust. The England squad, having collectively declined to provide the RFU with a successor to Carling, now know that unity is strength and this is bound to colour their future dealings with the RFU. Far from restraining them as the captain's dismissers would have hoped, it will make them still more aggressive, assertive and autonomous.

Originally the modern England generation's resentment was caused by frustration at the RFU's deliberately unhelpful guardianship of amateurism. While internationals elsewhere were free to exploit the regulations' liberalisation with the active involvement of their unions, England's came to view the RFU as reluctant and grudging.

Most of what they have achieved financially has therefore come from their own independent efforts and it is only as the World Cup has been approaching that the RFU has at last begun to use its own commercial clout on their behalf.

So in February Malcolm Phillips, who chairs the RFU working-party with senior players, announced that this season each member of the England squad could expect to make around £10,000 but thereafter, with the acquisition of an lite sponsor and reasonable success in South Africa, £15,000 would be easily attainable.

These are hardly riches when set against the £1.5m the RFU grosses from every Twickenham international or indeed the £70m it is costing to rebuild the ground into one of the finest sports stadiums in the country. But the rewards are greater than they were and demonstrate that the players might even get on with the old farts on the committee once they see the colour of their money.

And that, you can be sure, is not what Messrs Easby, Beer, Bishop, Richardson, Bromage and Motum - amateurs to their toe-caps - had in mind when they drop-kicked Will Carling out of the captaincy.

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