Rugby Union: Cotton leads the call for change

Rugby Union: Former Lions manager sets out on mission to restore `culture' of the English game
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The Independent Online
FRAN COTTON in a line-out on the 1977 British Lions tour of New Zealand, looking like a creature recently risen from a primeval swamp, is one of the most indelible of all sporting images. But now Cotton believes that his beloved rugby union is in a mire even deeper and dirtier than that one in Wellington.

On Thursday morning Cotton - once as formidable a loose-head prop as international rugby has seen, and more recently an equally formidable manager of the Lions tour to South Africa - picked me up at Macclesfield station in Cheshire. His sleek Mercedes offered a hint that Cotton Traders, the clothing company he founded 12 years ago with his former England colleague Steve Smith, is thriving mightily.

As we cruised towards the Cotton Traders empire in Altrincham, Cotton's carphone rang. Suddenly the Merc was filled with the deep and unmistakable voice of Bill Beaumont, calling to register his dismay at the state of English rugby.

Cotton believes that the management board of the Rugby Football Union is leading the game - if, he swiftly adds, it can be said to show any leadership qualities at all - into disarray. He is one of the most powerful advocates of the so-called Reform Group, whose stated objective is to depose the board, to introduce policies designed to win back the trust of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish rugby unions, and to restore the "culture" of the game in England.

While it is impossible to imagine Cotton actually turning cartwheels, he certainly shed no tears at this week's news that Sir John Hall is to sell his rugby interests at Newcastle. "Sir John and other investors filled a massive vacuum that was created when professionalism was introduced in a totally ill-considered way," said Cotton.

In the Cotton Traders boardroom, he warmed to his theme, starting with the "fiasco" of England's brief expulsion from the Five Nations tournament. "That must be the biggest embarrassment in rugby history," he said. "To be expelled, and then reinstated within 15 hours only because they were forced to accept unequivocally the Five Nations accord, which should never have been broken in the first place. In business, you would never allow yourself to get backed into a corner like that."

The Scottish, Welsh and Irish unions were entitled to feel aggrieved with the English stance, added Cotton who, nearly a year ago, resigned in disgust as vice-chairman of the management board. "These people are our rugby friends, we've been playing them for years, yet we have been completely duplicitous with them. We have tried to act like bully boys. And they are proud men, they don't like it.

"Besides, it would have been a disaster to replace the Five Nations with a super-tournament for England, France, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, as some of the management board wanted. Scotland, Ireland and Wales being strong ought to be as important to us as it is to them.

"We should be working to expand European rugby. It is fantastic that Italy is joining the Five Nations, that a game still perceived as Anglo- Saxon suddenly has a Latin country involved. Now let's work on Germany. We have millions of people to market the game to in Europe. In the southern hemisphere there are an awful lot of sheep."

The RFU's deal with Sky television, Cotton added, "has been an absolute disaster for the game, dividing the five nations at a time when we needed unity of purpose". Moreover, he maintained that the pounds 87.5m five-year Sky deal, quite aside from alienating the other home nations, was commercially unsound. His reasoning seemed to make plenty of sense. In matters of finance, 6ft 4in, 18-stone former maths teachers with pounds 22m of business interests generally do make sense.

"First of all, the deal that the Celts did with the BBC was actually far better," said Cotton. "Last Saturday, the BBC had 6.6 million viewers for the double-header [Ireland v France and Scotland v Wales with not a white shirt in sight]. Before Christmas, when England played the world champions, there were 500,000 viewers on Sky. So it is clearly not a good deal in terms of selling the sport.

"Then there is the pounds 4.1 million given each year to the professional clubs. Who decided on that figure? It is an inflated value and it does the game a great disservice, because all it is doing is fuelling the rampant payment of players.

"Below a certain level, the game will only survive by staying amateur. Take my old club Newton le Willows. They have lost 10 players to Southport because Southport are paying them 30 quid a week. It's a crazy situation. I went to a meeting at another of my old clubs, Liverpool St Helens, and they are just overwhelmed by it all. They don't want to stop paying travelling expenses because someone down the road will. But they can't afford it. We need a blanket ban on the payment of players below a certain level, and funding should instead go into clubhouses and youth policies.

"Look at Billy Beaumont's club, Fylde. They get pounds 250,000 a year from the Sky pot and it's destroyed them. They are trying to recruit players and be professional but it's an amateur club, and now they find they're having to sell the pitch to survive. Waterloo are having to sell the back pitch. We need to take the petrol can away and say: `If you want to keep the fire burning, find the coal yourself.' I tell you, they'll welcome it.

"Then the entire game will be funded by international rugby, with the interests of professional rugby properly catered for, and a small area of semi-professional rugby in which clubs can use local sponsorship to reward players.

"But professionalism will only account for one per cent of the game. The remaining 99 per cent will return to the amateur principles that allowed this game to thrive. Otherwise the tragedy that is about to befall rugby league, in which a super-league gets all the money and the rest are left to get on with it, will happen to us."

Cotton also believes that professional playing regulations have damaged rugby's grass roots. "They have to have a certain number of subs on the bench, front row cover, so there are lots of lads not getting a game. And naturally they lose interest. Orrell very often can't get fixtures for their second and third XVs, clubs that used to run eight teams are down to three. The game is in crisis and desperate for positive leadership."

If the Reform Group gets a chance to provide that leadership, it will devolve the day-to-day running of rugby to four provincial unions, explained Cotton. "The current league system doesn't work because of the distances involved. Twickenham doesn't know how to run rugby in the north of England, its proposals show it doesn't even know the geography of the place. They can run the international side and govern the game, and autonomous provincial unions will look after the day-to-day affairs. As for the top end of the game, if the ERU were to stand up and say that it is fully supportive of the International Rugby Board, and that the Five - soon-to-be Six - Nations is the collective property of those nations, relations with our international partners would be transformed overnight."

As I took my leave of the Cotton Traders boardroom, following Cotton's impressively articulate and impassioned monologue, I asked him about that famous 1977 photograph of him in New Zealand. It took him three days to get all the mud off, he said. Would that rugby could clean up its act as quickly.