Rugby: Does the word professional mean that you are paid something for playing or that you obtain your living from the game?

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The Independent Online
"Who's in charge of the clattering train?" Lord Beaverbrook used to ask when he was displeased, as he often was, with the running of one of his newspapers. I have been asking the same question ever since rugby union turned professional. Next week Tony Hallett, Dudley Wood's recent successor as secretary of the Rugby Football Union - just as well, given Wood's hostility to professionalism - is to reveal his proposals for the reorganisation of the game. I do not intend to anticipate them but to offer some preliminary reflections instead.

The first is that those who believe that the game can or should provide its participants with full-time employment are living in cloud-cuckoo land. The money is simply not there.

Rob Andrew will be all right at Newcastle - until his contract runs out or is terminated (as I trust does not happen). The same applies to Dean Ryan, with the same qualifications, as it does also to Nick Popplewell, Steve Bates and others who are offered and accept Sir John Hall's shilling.

Other English and Welsh First Division clubs may follow, to a greater or lesser extent. Leicester, for instance, have already decided to pay their players.

The analogy with cricket is instructive. The old-fashioned three-day, now four-day, county game does not support a fully professional structure. Only a few fuddy-duddies such as myself are interested in it. The counties have accordingly come up with no fewer than three Mickey Mouse competitions, which appeal to those who are more easily pleased.

But the real income - which enables the counties to maintain their rickety professional structure - derives from their cut of Test match proceeds. The game is not truly professional, in that only a few players obtain a full-time income from it.

The trouble arises from the definition of the word "professional". Does it mean that you are paid something for playing - or, what is very different, that you obtain a living from the game? Practitioners of football, tennis or golf are in the latter group. Cricketers and rugby league players are, most of them, in the former. Rugby union players will be lucky to do as well financially as these.

Then there is the question of contracts. Should a player's contract be with his club, with the RFU or, as separate contracts, with both? The RFU can certainly place under contract individual players who are members of the England squad. They may even extend it to selected young players who will, they hope, become members of the squad in due course - but these contracts must co-exist with club contracts.

Phil de Glanville of Bath was quoted in the Independent on Sunday as wanting a contract with his club alone, containing a proviso that he would be released to play for England. He also said: "You can't have two employers."

De Glanville seems to have misunderstood the position. We are not talking about employers. For example, I have separate contracts, to write on politics for the Independent on Sunday and on rugby for the Independent.

The journalist Craig Brown has about half a dozen different contracts with various newspapers and magazines. A multiplicity of contracts is perfectly possible in all kinds of occupations.

The option of a single-club contract is, however, equally valid. So is that of two contracts, one with the club, the other with the RFU. What does not seem to me to make sense is a contract with the RFU and with that body alone. This is what Rob Smith, the beleaguered Wasps coach, recommends for all First Division players, adding that the contract should "say they receive extra if picked for England".

But there is no purpose in a common-form contract for all First Division players. The whole point of a contract is that it should specify a payment for a given task or performance over a certain period of time. Wasps can decide whether to pay Damian Hopley more than Nick Greenstock, or vice versa. It is not and should not be a matter within the RFU's competence.

There is an even more important consideration. How on earth can the English union enter into a contract with, say, the Bath players Simon Geoghegan of Ireland and David Hilton, together with Eric Peters of Scotland?

Last season the RFU had the impudence to proclaim that in future the number of non-England-qualified players in First Division clubs would be drastically restricted, if not eliminated completely. This monstrous restraint of trade is now clearly unlawful, if it was not so previously.