Rugby Union: Brittle revives amateurism in plan for another new era

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The Independent Online
Two years ago rugby union struggled to accept the concept of professionalism. The switch from amateurism has been dogged with trouble and strife. Yesterday, the reforming radical, Cliff Brittle, delivered a new vision of the game which is bound to create a stir. David Llewellyn examines the proposals

Just 27 months after going professional rugby union is poised to revert to amateurism. If Cliff Brittle has his way the game in England will next year adopt a radical set of plans drawn up by the chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management board to get it back on its financial feet.

Brittle's vision, entitled "Rugby Restructure 2000", has taken nine months to prepare and entails creating a two tier game. The top 24 clubs in the Allied Dunbar Premiership remain professional, while clubs below that level would revert to amateur status, or at best semi-professionalism.

There is also a plan to create an England Amateur XV for which caps would be awarded, a reformation of the county championship which would be the intermediate stage to full amateur honours, and below that an amateur league. Brittle wants to see the changes implemented and in place by 2000.

The reasons for what amounts to a total restructuring of the administration of the game were laid out by Brittle, who said: "The game is financially unsustainable the way that we are going at the moment. The first job is to balance the books. We are haemorrhaging money, while clubs are losing teams and players because they cannot afford to sustain them. The RFU has underachieved consistently when compared with the southern hemisphere unions."

To that end Brittle predicts that if his proposals, or similar, are adopted then Twickenham's annual turnover of pounds 50m could be increased five or sixfold within the next 10 years. Chief contributor to a projected annual turnover of pounds 250m-pounds 300m would be the RFU's own television company. Brittle stressed that present contracts with BSkyB and other broadcasters and sponsors would be honoured. But by the time the satellite deal runs out in a decade's time Twickenham could well have its own broadcasting company in place.

The spin-offs for RFU TV would rake in a lot of cash, from videos of classic matches, such as England's draw against the All Blacks last weekend, to the sale to other television companies all over the world of live feeds, delayed transmission of a complete match, or simply highlights for sports programmes or clips for news broadcasts.

Among Brittle's other proposals is the scrapping of the present council, comprising representatives of the counties and constituent bodies all over the country and instead setting up five provincial unions. These would run the game at grass roots level more efficiently and cost effectively, Brittle believes, than Twickenham does at the moment.

At the professional end of the game, Brittle envisages the formation of Club England which would be administered by a small board of experts.

There would be a rationale - yet to be worked out - to limit the number of overseas players currently playing top flight club rugby to the detriment of home-bred players.

The whole paper, which was sent out to RFU council members yesterday, would have to be put to the 1998 AGM or an SGM, but in the meantime Brittle is happy to compromise and adapt. All he insists upon is that something is done.

"We have wasted the last two years," Brittle said, referring to the time that has elapsed since the International Board announced the abandonment of the concept of amateurism, with no concrete plan being introduced to restructure the game and embrace the professional age in a commercial manner.