Rugby Union: Dangers of the Spicer life

Tim Glover talks to a forward paying close attention to the professiona l age
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The Independent Online
When Tony O'Reilly came out of retirement to play for Ireland in 1970 he used to turn up for training in a Rolls. Not even the modern day professional can enter into such a Spirit of Ecstasy.

O'Reilly's mode of transport was influenced by the fact that he was a business tycoon ("Heinz Means Has Beens" was one futile headline on his comeback) in an age when Ireland's players were professional only in the sense that they tended to be solicitors, doctors or dentists.

Kevin Spicer, who has played for O'Reilly's former club Old Belvedere, also drives to training in a "company car", not a Roller but a Rover. On Tuesday Spicer will play in one of rugby's last great amateur occasions, the University match at Twickenham.

However, not only is he a student at Oxford but a professional with London Irish and it is from such a privileged vantage point that he is writing a unique thesis: "The Professionalisation of Rugby, 1995-1997".

Not surprisingly, Spicer has traced the seeds of the revolution back to the Southern Hemisphere. New Zealand, after losing to England, were looking at professionalism as long ago as 1993. "Where the All Blacks were so smart was in signing up the players," Spicer said. "They were all contracted to the New Zealand Rugby Union. In Australia there was the threat from rugby league with Rupert Murdoch pouring in millions and the Union had to try and keep its leading players. There were major developments before the International Board allowed professionalism. It wasn't rugby people who created the sea change, it wasn't players looking for compensation. It was outside business interests who saw a ready-made package.

"In England the big mistake the RFU made was in not contracting players. Instead the clubs signed them which led to the big power struggle. Because the players were owned by the clubs, the clubs felt they should have a say in the international arena which the RFU thought was ridiculous."

The 24-year-old Spicer has successfully combined rugby with studies, graduating from Clongowes Wood College in Naas and University College Dublin, while captaining Ireland Students and the under-21s. The No 8 joined London Irish last April and helped them in their rearguard fight against relegation.

Spicer and Niall Hogan, who is reading for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Cardiovascular Physiology at Oxford, have contracts for London Irish. "I'm not going to tell you what it's worth," Spicer said.

Before the game went open, London Irish made a profit, in 1995, of pounds 60,000. Last year the club lost nearly pounds 1m. "The owners are pumping money in willy nilly, and the club's are losing it left right and centre," Spicer said. "Other revenues will have to increase or salaries be reduced. Otherwise clubs will close, leaving an elite. At the moment the players are making the most of it but they're all being constantly monitored and are all fighting for their jobs. Everyone understands the dangers of not performing and insecurity is in the back of everyone's minds. As it is, the money's good and few are thinking long- term. Young guys are coming out of college to play or not even going to college. They shouldn't be sacrificing a degree."

Spicer's academic spin on his 50,000-word essay covers industrial relations and human resources and when his thesis is published he will be a Master of Letters. The quid pro quo of signing for the Exiles is that he and Hogan had to miss three weeks of Oxford rugby to play in the English Premiership.

Most clubs, Oxford and Cambridge excepted, pay win bonuses, a development which Spicer disagrees with. "I think it's disgraceful at international level. The idea of beating another country should be enough." Should he play for Ireland he would receive a bonus of around pounds 2,000. The Australians are on a supplement of about pounds 6,000 a match.

"Whereas New Zealand have the will to win ingrained in them, Australia seems to have been affected by professionalism," Spicer said. "Have they lost some of their pride? They get huge sums just for being selected and the performance tends to be overlooked."

Despite the insecurity, Spicer is aware of only one player, the former Ireland full-back Jim Staples, who has kept his day job. Staples is a stockbroker.

In time-honoured fashion, Spicer will fire off letters to the City before leaving Oxford, but if London Irish offer him a full-time contract he will take it. Meanwhile, he has the Varsity Match to worry about, not to mention the title of his thesis. "I'm a bit concerned," he said. "Is there such a word as professionalisation?"