Rugby Union: Amateurism is finished says Bishop

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The Independent Online
English rugby leapt out of the last ditch last night when the Rugby Football Union's new president publicly accepted the demise of amateurism and with it effectively accepted that the game is bound to become professional when the International Board meets in Paris next month.

For a union perceived internationally as the most regressive opponents of such a course, this was fairly radical stuff, even if Bill Bishop's remarks at the RFU's annual meeting in London had already been presaged by the RFU's new secretary, Tony Hallett.

In any event, the pounds 370m television deal signed three weeks ago in Johannesburg by the Australian, New Zealand and South African unions with Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation has made any further English obstructionism the merest irrelevance, though Dover RFC did circulate a paper last night expressing outright opposition to any further erosion of amateurism.

In this they will not have their new president's support. Bishop, who has been Cornwall's representative on the RFU committee since 1976, was present in South Africa during the World Cup and fully appreciated the irresistible trend of events even before the Murdoch contract was announced on the eve of the final.

"It would not be overstating the case if I said that next season, or rather from this moment forward, we are confronted by a mighty challenge," he said. "It may well be that the game we all enjoy changed irrevocably in South Africa, as many of us thought it might.

"The laws of the game remain the same for all, but the benefits being obtained by top players in some countries and sought by others are in danger of changing the game from a recreational activity to a job. Benefits do not come with strings and conditions and players must understand that if this course is followed the independence to play when and where they like will be severely curtailed."

This was a simple statement of fact; of more concern to Bishop is that professional, or quasi-professional, rugby union does not fall into outside hands. "Whatever the future holds, the Rugby Football Union and the International Board must retain control," he said. "We cannot allow the game to be run by agents, sponsors and media, or even by players until such time as they hang up their boots.

"We must not sacrifice everything for money but I believe the word amateurism has become an anachronism. At the top end of the game it is really an outdated and ill-fitting description."

If Bishop wished for confirmation, it came yesterday with the disclosure that the Australian RFU is putting together pounds 150,000-a-year packages to keep John Eales, Tim Horan and Jason Little out of the clutches of rugby league; that the New Zealand RFU expects to put a squad of 26 on annual contracts of pounds 88,000 each; and that leading South African provincial players were receiving around pounds 250 per match and also being paid win bonuses.

This scarcely squares with the agm opinion of the outgoing RFU president, Denis Easby. He said: "My own view remains the same in that no player should be paid for playing the game, nor should a player receive anything other than legitimate expenses. But outside that they may earn or obtain material benefits provided they do not encroach on their own unions' commercial arrangement."