No warm welcome from Irish

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

STEVE BALE

The new, supposedly honest era of professional rugby union that dawned with the International Board council's historic meeting in Paris provoked an honestly antagonistic response yesterday from aficionados who anticipate the collapse of their rugby world.

Nowhere was the anguish more pronounced than in Ireland, which remained a bastion of amateurism even after the Rugby Football Union in England had given up the fight. So while the warmth of the welcome in the Southern hemisphere for the IB decision was entirely predictable, so was that of the Irish.

"We expected and recognised change had to come, but the nature and extent of the changes are going to cause major difficulties," the Irish Rugby Football Union's immediate past president, Ken Reid, said last night. "It will be detrimental to many of the aspects of the game in Ireland that are among its most appealing elements. This has opened up an era of turmoil over the next few years, and it will not only prove difficult, but may also be very unpleasant."

However, Syd Millar, the current president and former Lions player, coach and manager, accepted that the IRFU would have to get on with working within the new dispensation. "While Ireland regretted the passing of an era, we intend that Irish rugby remain one of the major unions of the world game," he said.

The first step will be a meeting on Friday with leading Irish players, who will be advised that resources with which to pay them are limited - in fact non-existent at club level. This is a problem in England, too, where club officials were yesterday queuing up to warn their players that there was a limit to what they could expect from them.

Even John Allen, the secretary of Leicester, who are not only champions but comfortably England's best-supported club, was playing down expectations, even though the Tigers' president, Peter Wheeler, has already suggested pounds 25,000 a year as a reasonable pay-for-play figure.

English entry into a European club competition in 1996, with a pounds 20m Sky television deal on the table, has become crucial to financing professionalism at the Leicester level. "Playing against European opposition is now important on two levels," Allen said.

"Last season, we were looking at increased European competition simply from the rugby viewpoint of improving our standards. Now, entering that European competition next year is critical in money terms. Rugby has become a different game overnight, but whether it will be a better game will be questioned by many."

Richard Mawditt, chairman of Bath, the cup holders, said: "Let's not kid ourselves that the money is there. I don't believe our club is in a position to pay large sums of money for players' fees. Bath will have to face that reality and we have to talk to the players, who will also have to face the reality we don't have great pots of gold."

John Quin, the Bath secretary, called on the RFU to include First Division representation on any body established to lay down professional guidelines, so as to avoid conflict between national and club contracts. "The greater the contractual commitment to England, self-evidently the greater the impact it is likely to have on a club like Bath," he said. Club officers will meet tonight.

A less obvious objection came from France, where Andre Herrero said he intended to resign as the (honorary) French team manager, a position he has held for less than a week. "I suppose that I am now a professional and, if it is so, I do not want to do this job for free," Herrero said. "If rugby union now allows people to climb the social ladder, it is a good thing, but if we all become mercenaries I do not think it will be a good thing."

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