Packer wins court battle

Rugby union
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By Owen Slot

THE World Rugby Corporation, which is supported by Kerry Packer, yesterday won a court order preventing the South African Rugby Football Union from signing any contracts with the Springboks or indeed making any contact with them until another hearing on Thursday.

In papers filed in Cape Town, it was revealed that 129 South African players, including all 28 of the national squad, had signed contracts with WRC and that Francois Pienaar, the World Cup-winning captain, was one of the men signing them up. The papers said Pienaar was due to be paid $300,000 (pounds 187,000) in November for his work as a WRC agent.

The move shows that WRC is not beaten yet in the struggle for global control of international rugby union. On Friday the picture looked very different when it was announced that 25 of the 28-man Springbok squad had pledged their future to Sarfu. The Australian and New Zealand rugby unions and Sarfu have already made a a pounds 360m 10-year deal with the Rupert Murdoch owned News Corporation. Friday's news was hailed by Edward Griffiths, the Sarfu chief executive: "The threat to rugby in this country has been thwarted," he said.

Yesterday, though, in thesupreme court, an interdict preventing Sarfu from "inducing certain South African players from breaching their contracts with WRC" was granted. Sarfu is also forbidden to "interfere in any manner with contractual relationships between WRC and the players". Thursday's hearing will decide whether players are legally bound to WRC contracts.

Before the judgement yesterday, Ross Turnbull, the former Australia prop running WRC, made a statement from Sydney saying he expected contracts to be honoured: "We understand the Springboks have been pressured to return their WRC contracts. The atmosphere within the administration of rugby in South Africa is surrounded by threats, intimidation and misinformation."

The threats and intimidation Turnbull referred to became clear in the court papers, which stated: "On 3 August, Springbok Hennie le Roux indicated that players were being intimidated by Louis Luyt [the Sarfu president] to conclude contracts with Sarfu and to terminate any agreements they had with WRC."

The application quoted Pienaar, Le Roux and another player as saying Luyt had given them a deadline of 5pm on 4 August [last Friday] to sign with Sarfu, "or they would never play for South Africa again". Sarfu announced that all but three of the Springboks had pledged their future to the national union that lunchtime.

After the hearing, Turnbull said that he felt "sorry for the rugby players and in particular for Francois Pienaar. Can you imagine a young man in his twenties who is forced by a formidable bully such as Louis Luyt to breach his legal contract with WRC?"

Events in South Africa will be closely watched by the RFU which, it appeared, had been close to an agreement with the England squad. Malcolm Phillips, the RFU's representative, is due to resume talks with senior players early this week and the RFU are on the point of announcing a new sponsorship package. They may, of course, now be wondering whether the squad are legally bound elsewhere.

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