Rugby Union: Circus can ring the changes: Chris Rea believes Jacques Fouroux's plans for professional rugby union will fail but could alter the game for ever

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The Independent Online
JACQUES FOUROUX is a little man who thinks big. He always looked more suited to the Subbuteo cloth than the rugby field behind one of the mightiest packs in France's history and later his coaching philosophy was based on the size of his forwards. The obsession was taken to absurd lengths with the introduction of a prop as acting scrum-half at the lineout.

Despite his half-baked theories Fouroux has somehow managed to be taken seriously, especially in France where he is regarded with Napoleonic reverence in some quarters, although his alternative sobriquet, 'le petit caporal', suggests that in the eyes of many he is not quite the finished article. But if, as he claims, he has got hold of the ultimate deterrent, he could rise rapidly through the ranks.

The deterrent in this case is a Kerry Packer-style rugby circus which Fouroux intends to detonate next summer. He claims to have financial backing from, among others, Serge Kampf, who has bankrolled a number of extravagant gestures to French players in the past. The sane response is that Fouroux has got no chance of getting his venture off the ground, and even if by some miracle he succeeded, he could not possibly keep it airborne. Both Dennis Easby, the president of the Rugby Football Union, and its secretary, Dudley Wood, have been scornfully dismissive, and Wood has even expressed relief, saying that if Fouroux were to succeed, it would finally make an unanswerable case for the wholesome benefits of amateurism.

On the contrary, if Fouroux does pull it off, and he faces overwhelming odds, rugby union will be a professional sport faster than anyone predicted. The examples of tennis and cricket stand before us. In the mid-Fifties the festering discontent within tennis provoked a revolution which began when Jack Kramer's professional circus hit the road with Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, the two biggest draws in the world game, in tow. Hoad, who had twice won Wimbledon as an amateur in 1956 and 1957 but had barely won enough prize money to cover his expenses, joined Kramer without a second thought.

By 1968 the professional circuit had signed up every one of the world's top players. It was also in that year that Wimbledon became the first major tournament to open its doors to professionals. Coincidence? Probably not.

In 1974, Kerry Packer launched his bid to screen Australian cricket on his own Channel 9 station. Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were at their peak and the game was enjoying a boom. Despite Packer's persistence, the Australian Board remained loyal to ABC for televised coverage of the game and believed that by doing so that they had outwitted Packer. But while Englishmen were hailing Derek Randall's century in the Centenary Test at Melbourne in 1977, Tony Greig, a henchman of Packer and, as a former England captain, the ultimate gamekeeper turned poacher, was working feverishly behind the scenes recruiting English players. For two years World Series Cricket reduced the official game to a meaningless sham before the Australian authorities ran up the white flag and gave Packer what he wanted.

How long would it be before rugby surrendered to Fouroux just as tennis and cricket conceded to the demands of the hijackers? Whatever figure Fouroux first thought of to finance his folly, he should treble it. Packer, despite winning the war, lost many legal battles and bundles of money. So did Lamar Hunt with WCT professional tennis which was, in his own words, 'mildly in the black' for three years and very nearly dollars 5m in the red for 17. It was estimated that the venture drained more than dollars 32m from Hunt's personal fortune. The Australian David Lord, a self-styled entrepreneur and another of Packer's emissaries, was dispatched overseas in 1983 with the brief to sign up the world's best rugby players. He was doing well enough until he was rumbled. An undischarged bankrupt at the time, he had the mouth but not the money.

Since then, rugby union has been transformed, propelled to major sporting status by the World Cup, leagues and sponsorship. The top players have as much exposure and fame as they can handle. What they do not have is the financial reward commensurate with what they give to the game. But if it is true that every player has his price, that price is very much higher then it was 10 years ago and could be far too high for an enterprise such as Fouroux's.

It was only the prospect of the financial security provided by pounds 400,000 that persuaded Scott Quinnell to forsake a glittering future with Wales and the glamour of the World Cup. There is no way that Fouroux's travelling circus could offer the some long-term security to its performers, most of whom would be closer to the end of their playing careers than the beginning. Quinnell, who would certainly have been on Fouroux's shopping list, was a rarity in that he achieved stardom relatively early in his career, although this may well have been more a reflection on the current state of Welsh rugby than it was on his abilities as a player. Nevertheless, the most likely recruits would come from the ranks of the long established internationals whose ambition had been dulled by achievement. Once they had taken the plunge there would be no way back into the fold.

Similarly with television. Any company giving space to the rebel's cause would run the risk of excommunication from the game and coverage of its major events. That is a risk that the BBC, ITV and BSkyB, all of whom are heavily committed to the official line with contracts extending well beyond next summer's World Cup, would never be prepared to take Ultimately, denied the vital supply of publicity and without a regular injection of fresh, young blood, Fouroux's bomb would fizzle out as the dampest of squibs. But not before it had dramatically altered the game's landscape.

(Photograph omitted)

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