Rugby Union: A fight for the soul of rugby

Tony O'Reilly, who won 29 caps for Ireland and scored a record- breaking 38 tries for the Lions, fears that the unique appeal of rugby union is under threat in the professional era
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PETER KININMONTH, a former captain of Scotland, said in ancient times: "We don't have much money, but we do have fun." The opposite may now be the case. The game which was played for recreation, pleasure, some exercise and fleeting moments of glory has now become a professional sport. In consequence, it has changed in ways that are good, in ways that are bad, and in some ways that are as yet incalculable. Most importantly, the future of this once Corinthian game is today up for very public debate.

Put simply, rugby football at the highest level is now seen as a professional calling with all that implies in terms of contractual obligations, demands for performance, critical crowds, the potentiality for great rewards for some players and an alarming feeling of instability that appears to permeate player, official, and, to a degree, spectator alike.

First the game: played at its best, many of the rule changes today have been enormously beneficial. However, the assisted jump and the pointlessness of fighting for possession make line-outs and loose rucks merely a means of restarting the game against your opponents. Their reaction is the rugby league one of stringing defenders across the field, as Australia did so brilliantly against England in the final of the World Cup in 1991, and all the while hoping for some breakdown to give a scooting try to their fast runners.

The gladiatorial clash of players, who seem startlingly larger than I recall them, can be as boring as its rugby league counterpart. The loose ruck (Colin Meads once told me that a loose ruck could go on for three months in New Zealand), the forward rush and dribble, the swerve and the sidestep, the desire to beat your opposite number by eluding him, is no longer part of the main game. Running into a man rather than away from him is the new bible of rugby. The aim is to get yourself in a position where, with a three-to-two or a two-to-one overlap, you will score by straight running.

Much of this is very virtuous and there are aspects which I would enjoy greatly in the modern game, but there is a real danger that, as tactics improve, the defender may gain the upper hand, and the glory of the game as a running spectacle may be somewhat diminished.

All of this, however, is remediable. In contrast, there is a great danger that the unique spirit of rugby football and the collegiality of its clubs may be lost in a welter of accusations and counter-accusations that makes the Middle East look like a relative haven of calm.

The nature of the problems are extraordinary. We have large English clubs accusing their own Rugby Union of exerting too much control. You have the International Rugby Board chastising the Rugby Football Union for the action of its clubs, whose own actions seek to damage the very Union that defends it. You have a European Cup without the English clubs. You have players whose loyalties are divided between country, province and club, and you have a potential unilateral declaration of independence by the RFU and television from the other Unions, which challenges the very financial lifeblood of the game.

In this maelstrom of imputation and counter-statement, one thing is quite clear: rugby clubs cannot afford to pay the escalating playing salaries (and now transfer fees) of the players if they are to continue. The combination of gates and television receipts are simply insufficient to match the outflows associated with all the principal clubs. Almost every major club will report a loss this year. The losses can only grow because the game, although popular at the international level, will never have the support at the domestic level that a club requires to pay all its bills. This applies as much to Leicester, one of my old clubs and a very successful one too, as it does to Dolphin or Old Belvedere, another two of my old clubs. There will be no Manchester United in rugby football.

A partial solution would be the one aired by Dan Rooney, the president and owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, in London two years ago at a conference organised by Rugby News. He advocated a cap on the amount each club could pay all its players, as operated in the United States in American Football. It has the effect of equalising competition for good players throughout the country and making cost and expense equate to one another. If the cap is pounds 2m and a club wishes to pay pounds 2m for one player, it would have to pay nothing for the other 14 or 20 players, as the case may be. The contrast between the figures paid for baseball and basketball players and those paid in American Football would make instructive reading for all club treasurers in the rugby-playing world.

In short, rugby football should not be the province of a small handful of individuals or clubs, but should be in the trusteeship and affordable ownership of all committed people, in large and small clubs throughout the world. This gives the game its unique appeal.

On the thorny issue of contracts, I believe that although the basic contract should be with the clubs, the additional cash flow must be from the independent Rugby Unions through their very large revenues from gate receipts and TV payments for internationals, and paid by agreement to the clubs after allowing for the Unions' own development and administrative expenses. Most importantly, there should be a commonality of purpose between the Unions and the clubs as to the performance of that country in international competition, and the contracts should reflect that.

In Ireland, the clubs in all their vigour, loyalty, fun and diversity must be encouraged by the Rugby Union to flourish. While there will be contracts at club level, the primary contracts should be with the provinces and the national squad, and the provinces should have the right to represent Ireland in the European League and Cup, if that be the final structure agreed upon by all the Unions.

Finally, the issue of competition has reduced itself to an absurdity with the English clubs pulling out of the European Cup. Whether you have a European Cup and League or simply a European Cup, all the best clubs and provinces in the five nations - and beyond, if justified - should participate to ensure maximum spectator appeal. The fact that Ravenhill in Belfast will cater for a crowd of more than 20,000 people for the European Cup semi-final against Stade Francais today is an eloquent testimony to the pulling power of European competition. The very least we should have is a European Cup and that, as Bath showed in winning it last season, can be an enormous attraction. Again, the financial results of such a tournament should be divided equitably by the Unions among all those clubs who, by their excellence, make such a competition possible.

In the final analysis, rugby football is a game in which the international occasion should be preserved in a manner that underlines its scarcity rather than its superabundance. The Five Nations' Championship has been part of the rugby calendar for almost 100 years. To do away with it or to devalue it would be both a financial insanity and a major defeat for the growing but still measured popularity of the game. Rugby football is not soccer and should remind itself of this rather frequently.

The World Cup may surprise, and I believe that northern hemisphere rugby, inspired by the recent performances of England, Wales, France and Ireland against southern opposition, may provide the kernel of a number of upsets. And, if I may put it euphemistically, as diet changes, so do disparities disappear, and my feeling is that the World Cup in 1999 may see a more level playing field in this regard than before.

So, in a nutshell, what I am saying is that the International Rugby Board and the individual Unions must continue to be the centrepiece of a growing world game. Individuals and clubs bent upon their own (and in most cases very justifiable) ends, or television companies whose constant responsibility is the search for a wider audience, should not be the determinants for the future of this great game.

I might add in saying this that the IRB will have to be a lot more consumer- friendly in many of its activities to garner the democratic support needed from all world followers. The same is true of the separate Rugby Unions of the individual countries. They are the servants of the spectator, the game and the player, and, in being given the authority to run the game, need to be reminded constantly by the press and the media of their trusteeship.

Golf, that most universal of games run by the Royal & Ancient club from St Andrews, and Wimbledon, the greatest of all tennis tournaments, demonstrate that an efficient and effective organisation does not need to be a major cost centre for the game.

If half of this is accomplished, then we would have a great Five Nations' Championship, a return to the vivacity and enjoyment that characterised the game at very level in the past and a very good World Cup at the end of this millennium year.

Cliff Morgan, that magical fly-half from Wales, once said that "rugby football sweats the vice out of a man". Let's hope that similar sentiment at the corporate level yields a game that in its future promise matches its storied and glorious past.

Dr Tony O'Reilly is Chairman of Independent Newspapers, which owns The Independent, and is a qualified solicitor