Rugby Union: Chris Rea says there is no going back in rugby's move towards professionalism

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The Independent Online
SCOTLAND were playing France in 1969, the last time that the Scots won in Paris. It was my second cap and, having swapped my jersey for an Australian model in my first international, I had paid the then princely sum of pounds 16 10s 6d for another one. At the after-match dinner I was sitting next to a Frenchman, the best player in the world in his position. 'Have you ever thought of turning professional?' I asked ingenuously. He looked at me with baffled incomprehension. 'Chrees,' he said, 'I could not afford to turn professional.' It was then I realised that not only was rugby a game of two halves, it inhabited two different planets which, in the intervening years, have been hurtling uncontrollably to opposite ends of the universe.

The forthright comments on professionalism last week by Vernon Pugh, chairman of the International Rugby Board, and his warning that the controversy is causing irreparable damage to the game are honourably meant, but are hardly revelatory. The stench from the bag of rotting sewage gets stronger, polluting the freshness of the air breathed by people like Pugh. Perhaps he is, after all, a messiah, the one the game has been waiting for ever since it stepped into the Aladdin's Cave of commercialism. But more likely he will be anaesthetised by the perfumed hanky as so many well-intentioned crusaders have been before him.

Things have gone too far. Rugby's problem over the next few years, from a domestic point of few at least, will be to justify the vastly over-inflated prices which have been paid for it. This will make ever more demands on a game which is already at breaking point. Jack Rowell, the England manager, meant it when he said that no member of his World Cup squad should play after the final round of international matches next March. The sponsors of the Cup and League, to say nothing of television, are going to love that.

Pugh states that the laws of the game must be such that they are both accepted and respected by the majority of those to whom they apply. He adds that the interests at international level are very different from those within the clubs. The problem is that the majority of those who play rugby do so for sheer enjoyment, as a relaxation and a diversion from the daily routine of work. There is a certain heroism, some would say lunacy, in the idea of putting tortured, misshapen bodies on the rack for 80 minutes, the better to enjoy the pint of ale afterwards. But this is a world away from the international game and an ice-cube in the Sahara would have a better chance of survival than your average rugby player in a World Cup final at Ellis Park. Even at club level there are vastly different needs and priorities, the bottom club in National League Four in England having no conception of what it takes to reach and to remain at the top of the Premier.

When Northampton went through the agonies of the renewal process which pulled them back from the brink of oblivion four years ago, they did so to preserve the club's distinguished past and to secure an even more glorious future. They have doubtless done it by legitimate means. But even if, along the way, they had bent the odd regulation, so what? Rugby is once again flourishing in an area which was close to becoming a wilderness. The club commands more column inches in the local press than the football and cricket clubs combined and there are few more splendid sights on a Saturday afternoon than a full house at Franklin Gardens. But there has been a price to pay, and were Northampton or any other First Division club with similar commitments to fall from their position in the top flight, it would be financially ruinous. Clubs will therefore do everything within their power and some, if necessary, may be prepared to move outside the laws to maintain their status.

This is the inevitable consequence of a competitive league structure, just as a shift towards professionalism was the inevitable consequence of sponsorship coming into the game. The International Board in its wisdom recognised this 25 years ago, when they voted against it. The World Cup in South Africa next summer, the biggest financial bonanza in rugby, is certain to accelerate the process. Not because the tournament is to be held in the southern hemisphere but because the problem is a global one.

Vernon Pugh warns of a division between the two hemispheres as a result of different attitudes towards professionalism, but the attitudes among the majority of the world's leading rugby-playing nations are remarkably similar. With the exception of Japan, Argentina and Ireland, who still cling to the remnants of amateurism, and sundry administrators insulated in their time capsules, all are agreed that the sham and shambles of the present situation cannot be allowed to continue.

There is no going back. The goalposts have been moved to another field, never to be returned, and those who toured South Africa with England earlier this summer were entertained to a vision of the future which is as different as it is disturbing.