Packer circus on the point of collapse

Rugby Union
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Kerry Packer's threatened breakaway professional circus appeared to be on the point of collapse yesterday, after South Africa's world champions agreed to sign contracts binding them to the South African Rugby Union. The Australians look certain to do the same after a meeting with the Australian Rugby Union.

Here, it emerged that negotiations were proceeding between sponsors and television aimed at enabling England's players to follow suit. Ironically, the news from the south leaves the players in the north, who were using the Packer threat to persuade the clubs and the Rugby Football Union to offer them more money, in a weaker bargaining position.

Packer's World Rugby Corporation circus would involve around 900 players worldwide, taking part in three competitions, including an international series. A starting date as early as November this year had been mooted.

The biggest blow to Packer's circus was delivered in Johannesburg, where 25 of the 28-strong World Cup-winning squad agreed to sign contracts with their union. Only Hennie Le Roux, Christiaan Scholtz and Robby Brink have asked for more time to consider their options. "I met with the players this morning and they have agreed to remain loyal to Sarfu and will not take part in any other organisation. Contractual details are being finalised," Edward Griffiths, Sarfu's chief executive, said.

Earlier in Sydney, the Australian Rugby Football Union board member, Ian Ferrier, said the top Australian players would also reject Packer. "I expect the entire Wallaby squad to be signed up by the middle of next week," he said.

New Zealand players, who are currently in negotiation with their governing body and have been made a sizeable offer, will be watching carefully, and without the leading southern hemisphere players a Packer circus would not seem to be viable. As Ferrier said: "Can you imagine a world contest without Australia, New Zealand or South Africa? It would be a joke."

Yesterday's events represent a major victory for Rupert Murdoch, with whom the three southern hemisphere giants have already signed a television deal.

Asked whether South African rugby was now fully professional, Griffiths said: "Until the International Rugby Football Board meeting in August, rugby union remains an amateur game. There is a perception of a two-phase transition with the northern hemisphere lagging behind the southern, but we could not stand by and see South African rugby disintegrate."

The big concern for the players here will be that, once again, they will be left far behind. Dick Best, the director of rugby at Harlequins, tried to allay those fears yesterday. "Roger Looker [the Harlequins chairman] and Peter Wheeler [the president of Leicester] are going to sit down with Sky television and Courage and other interested sponsors to see if they can negotiate a deal with the senior clubs and come up with a way for paying players," he said.

"I don't think we will ever compete with the Packer offer but I think senior players could earn almost as much, and they would also be able to keep their jobs with no burden of commitment such as they will have with a professional circus."

Best is also critical of the RFU for its apparent reluctance to match other governing bodies around the world. "I know there have been upheavals and Tony Hallett [the new secretary] is away, but I think they have been lackadaisical. It's happening in every other country and their unions are going overboard to keep their players."

At club level, the First Division teams are looking to pay their players up to pounds 25,000 per season, and representatives are to meet Rugby Football Union officials next week to try to resolve the issue.

Best is concerned that any players still considering the Packer deal should find out exactly what they would be letting themselves in for. "It's a fully blown professional contract," Best said. "But I don't think the players are aware of what that entails. They will get paid a lot but Packer will own them for five months of the year, they will be playing here and there as and when required and could end up one day in Germany and another in Hawaii."