Passion of the mystery man

close-up: Ross Turnbull; Player turned entrepreneur finds his vision of rugby's future is opposed. Owen Slot looks at an aspiring revolutionary
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The Independent Online
AS THE professional revolution continues to influence the future of rugby union, so too, to the amazement of many, does Ross Turnbull. Still at work, still something of a mystery. To almost all, he has been a name without a face, flitting secretly between the main rugby union capitals, his whereabouts untraceable but for the huge contracts that have been left behind in players' hands, tempting them away from the establishment to riches and rival competitions. To the unions he has been a phantom, threatening to wreck their world; and as is the way in the best horror stories, just when they thought the man was buried, he has risen again from the dead to haunt them once more.

He was alive and dead again last week. Four months after the failed launch of his World Rugby Corporation, the professional circus backed by Kerry Packer, he was promising sums of around pounds 200,000 to 300 players to join his latest project, a European club tournament. Yet the last rites on this venture have already been read: on Friday, the England players all signed RFU contracts, appearing to render irrelevant the deadline - also Friday - when Turnbull was supposed to come up with their cash. Nevertheless, on the same day, Turnbull gave no indication that his game is over. What of the Friday deadline? "I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about," he said.

With pounds 60m to be raised, it was surprising to find Turnbull last week at the Golden Door, a health resort on Australia's Gold Coast. It was surprising, indeed, to find him at all since, at the height of the mystery in July and August, the heady months of the WRC, hunting the one-time Wallaby became something of a game for Sydney journalists whose assignments to track him down via redundant telephone numbers and non-existent addresses went nowhere. And Turnbull was still elusive last week. He had signed agreements of confidentiality, he explained, and the England team's signing of the RFU contracts did not mean his plans were dashed. So the confidentiality remained.

He could, however, talk about his motivation. The WRC, he said, was the illegitimate child of Rupert Murdoch's Super League. The Super league was a threat to the Australian Rugby League, which is televised by Kerry Packer. Packer had asked the advice of Geoff Levy, a Sydney solicitor and financial consultant, and Levy in turn consulted his friend Turnbull, formerly a player and administrator. "So," Turnbull explained, "We said: 'Take rugby union professional. That'll strengthen the game so when Murdoch's scouts get to the World Cup, the boys will have an alternative to signing for the Super League.' That is what we did. We had a terrific plan and all the people I have spoken to from my rugby days agree. I was in there to save the game from rugby league."

Levy confirms that this was, indeed, Turnbull's attitude. "Ross is a real true-blue rugby lover, it is a passion. The thought of being able to defend rugby was of paramount importance to him." This, though, does not explain why he should return to Europe for a second attempt to run his own competition once the game had gone professional and the rugby league threat been averted. "The support for WRC in Europe was so big - and it was a different situation there," Levy said. "They don't have the money in the game that we do. It was just a question of whether you leave them all out or whether you keep helping them. Ross felt he had made so many friends that he almost had a moral obligation not to let them down."

What has continued to baffle, though, is why so many players continued to see their future with Turnbull. He failed and was discredited once, and that was with Packer's backing; he is now without Packer and again talking the sort of sums which barely add up. "He's a very pleasant bloke," said one of the England players last week. "He's of the ex-rugby player ilk - a genial, relaxed guy. You have to listen."

This is a view endorsed by Peter Wheeler, the president of Leicester, who has had meetings with Turnbull recently. "He's put quite a lot of noughts on the contract so the players are obviously interested," he said. "And remember, he used to be an international rugby player, a member of the ARU and a member of the IRB, so I wouldn't say he has any lack of credibility. This is a vision of the future, it is not a whim. It's very thoroughly thought out, financed and planned."

Turnbull's history, indeed, indicates a man with progressive ideas and a sense of loyalty to the game rather than, as his opponents suggest, a chancer looking to hijack it in order to line his pocket. In the Eighties, he was one of the IRB delegates most forceful in the push to create the World Cup (the northern hemisphere delegates needed persuasion) and he was also at the forefront in trying to improve allowances for international players.

Even his most famous failure pre-WRC, the AS$17m (pounds 8m) debt in which the New South Wales RU found itself under his chairmanship, does not discredit him to the extent some would have it. The debt was largely from building the Concord Oval, a stadium that was unpopular because it was on the wrong side of Sydney for the city's rugby population and failed to return anything like the required revenue. Three years after the stadium's completion, Turnbull announced the formation of the "Friends of Rugby", a group who were to buy out the NSWRU's debt, and he weighed in with AS$1m of his own money.

Turnbull had no further involvement in rugby administration until last March and that call from Levy. Even now, Levy swears that WRC is not the failure it is made out to be. "A lot of what we set out to achieve has been achieved," he said. "The game is now professional, we have a better competition, the players are contracted and they have a players' union."

Andy Haden, the former All Black who also worked for the WRC, believes the rugby world missed out. "WRC was a better option than what we've ended up with. Few players dispute that now and a number have told me so. Here was a sport that could have become professional globally at one time with one competition. Instead we have a number of different ones and some countries are left out all together. We also have different pay scales and different governing bodies. It is fragmentation, not unity."

With his latest venture now apparently dead, it seems unlikely that Turnbull will be back to haunt us again. And what if it really is all over? "Whatever I do," he said, "I will enjoy. I've already built one of the biggest legal practices outside Sydney and I've also got a real estate company to go back to. But what we have done this year for rugby has been fabulous." It is for his involvement in the game, Levy insists, that Turnbull would wish to be remembered: "Ross once said that this thing is his destiny. He doesn't think it is his gravy train; there are easier ways to make money. Maybe he thinks he will be able to go his grave with his tombstone reading: 'I helped to fix rugby'."

Men who tried to change the face of rugby

The David Lord circus (1983)

Lord, an Australian journalist, tried to form an eight-team tournament with 208 of the world's best players. He succeeded in signing the players, but failed to secure the pounds 20m to pay them.

The Jacques Fouroux circus (1994)

In October 1994, Fouroux, the former French coach, claimed to have "an atom bomb for the game". Serge Kampf, head of the Cap-Gemini computer company, was said to be backing him. On 8 November, Fouroux revealed his plans: a rugby league tournament. Whether he had tried and failed to make his plans work in union remains unclear. His rugby league idea has been brought to some fruition by Rupert Murdoch: the Super League.

The World Rugby Corporation (1995)

Fronted by Ross Turnbull, backed by Kerry Packer, the WRC came close to fruition in August. But six-figure sums were rejected by southern hemisphere players, who decided to take money from their own unions.

The Ross Turnbull Euroleague (1995)

Attempted to sign 300 players at pounds 200,000 each for European club league. The England players have rejected the idea. Turnbull has still not conceded defeat.