RFU doubles its bid for leading players

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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

Rugby Union Correspondent

The bidding for England's leading rugby union players intensified yesterday when Malcolm Phillips, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union's players' working party, promised that they would double their money next season if they remain out of the clutches of Kerry Packer's proposed international rugby circus.

Thus has the professionalism debate spiralled beyond the control of the game's traditional administrators, with Packer's determination to invade sporting territory that another Australian media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, thought was his leading to an unseemly auction around the world.

Meanwhile, the First Division Association, a new grouping which incorporates England's First Division clubs with the present exception of Orrell and West Hartlepool and the addition of Northampton, is already thought to have pounds 5m from television and a brewer on the table for a breakaway league and is sufficiently confident of itself to go back for more if its relationship with the RFU breaks down terminally.

England players were due to meet the RFU last night, but the meeting has been postponed, probably until tomorrow, provided Colin Herridge, the RFU committee man closest to the players, can get all the interested parties together.

The RFU is soon to sign a jersey sponsorship deal, of which part of the proceeds will go directly to the players, and yesterday Phillips said: "Next season we will guarantee the players pounds 30,000-plus."

Last season, regular England squad members received around pounds 16,000 each. "We will be asking the players to consider whether this Australian scheme might just be flying a kite and muddying the waters of the Rupert Murdoch TV deal which was announced last month," Herridge said.

"We will ask them to consider where the money is coming from and to remember other projects that did not get off the ground. On the other hand, we know we can deliver the money for the players that we are promising."

Down Under, thing are also moving apace. It comes to something when the Australian Rugby Football Union portrays itself as the establishment, but that is precisely what happened yesterday when Bruce Hayman, the ARFU chief executive, warned the Wallabies off Packer. The Australian, New Zealand and South African unions are committed to a 10-year, pounds 360m television deal with Murdoch's News Corporation.

Hayman said Packer's proposals, which could make some individuals as much as pounds 140,000 a year, were "an affront to the rugby establishment, in strict contrast to News Corporation's agreement with the game's proper administrators". The pressure was intensified when Richie Guy, the New Zealand RFU chairman, said any of the All Black team due to play Australia in Sydney on Saturday found to have signed for Packer would be summarily dropped.

Fronting Packer's operation is Ross Turnbull, a former prop who won one cap for Australia in 1968 and is the man generally credited with landing the New South Wales RFU with its headquarters at the unloved and unlovely Concord Oval in one of Sydney's least appealing suburbs.

Up to 140 English players have been targeted and 900 worldwide. Most of the Scots are said to be ready to go with Packer, while the Welsh Rugby Union requires assurances from the 24 players selected for Wales's forthcoming games in South Africa and is ready to guarantee domestic contracts worth an initial annual pounds 20,000 each.

The Irish, however, appear to be the ones missing out. Reports in New Zealand claim that the eminent ex-All Black wing, Bryan Williams, the Western Samoa RU's technical adviser, has thrown in his lot with Packer after the Samoans' contentious exclusion from the Murdoch deal.

This would tie in with further speculation that the tip of the Packer iceberg would be an eight-country international competition which excludes Ireland but includes Samoa alongside the other seven longest-established rugby countries: Australia, England, France, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales.

Amid the uncertainty, one absolute certainty is that, with or without the International Board meeting on amateurism in Paris next month, rugby union is about to change for good, and all the players who matter know it. As one senior coach at this month's RFU referees' and coaches' meeting at Trent College told his fellows: "There is a policeman of my acquaintance who is applying to his chief constable for a year's sabbatical."

WHO'S OFFERING WHAT IN RUGBY UNION'S BRAVE NEW WORLD

KERRY PACKER

Up to pounds 140,000 a year per player for eight-country international competition supported by regional rugby, including around 900 players around the world and called World Rugby Championship. No details officially disclosed; question marks over availability of these huge sums.

RUPERT MURDOCH

Signed 10-year TV deal worth pounds 360m with southern hemisphere unions last month which will inevitably be used to pay players once amateurism is formally interred by International Board next month. Constrained in England by Sky's club rugby contract, and in home unions by BBC contract, each of which has two years to run.

RUGBY FOOTBALL UNION

RFU promises England players a minimum pounds 30,000 a year (1994-95: pounds 16,000), once jersey sponsorship deal is signed, to remain within traditional structure and continue to fill the new Twickenham. Leaves problem over non-squad members with no way, other than Packer, of boarding gravy train.

WELSH RUGBY UNION

Wants to market three-feathers jersey badge in order to ensure the squad, even though they have not been achieving any playing success, minimum annual contracts of pounds 20,000, and wants assurances from players chosen to go to South Africa next month that they are untainted by Packer.

FIRST DIVISION

ASSOCIATION

Believed already to have pounds 5m sponsorship - a war-chest with which to keep its players' services by handsomely paying them - on offer to set up a rival competition to the RFU's, but wants more, maybe as much as pounds 15m.

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