Rugby Union: Game for 'clowns' is no laughing matter

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RUGBY UNION will ignore at its peril the threat - or promise - by Jacques Fouroux, former Grand Slam captain and coach of France, to establish some form of international rugby circus immediately after next year's World Cup.

But the notion that frere Jacques already has plans in place for a pounds 25m venture which will cream off all of the world's best players and so milk the game is utterly fanciful. Circus? 'I must be one of the clowns,' Rob Andrew, England's stand-off, said. 'He hasn't approached any players yet.'

Doubtless he soon will and it is not impossible the likes of Andrew, players at the fag-end of distinguished careers, could take the money and run, pass and kick for an ersatz England / France / New Zealand or whoever. If the millions, and more particularly the will of sufficient players, are there to stand up to despised authority, there is no reason why this potentially seismic event should not take place.

More important, though, than the low-credibility prospect of England playing Wales at - where shall we say? - Chelsea is whether it could conceivably last. It is all very well to put up pounds 25m to get something started, but what about the further fortunes that will be expended on keeping it going?

However ill-used the players, however taken for granted their supposedly amateur commitment to a quasi-professional game, they would be understandably wary of a circus in which they would not even be the clowns but the poor, dumb animals. Still, if the price is right . . .

Rugby has passed this way before, and I do not mean the breakaway in 1895 of the northern clubs who eventually became the Rugby League - though it is possible, just, to imagine the entire rugby world - as opposed to our little bit of it - soon split into rival camps under rival governing bodies.

Some in the game, notably Dudley Wood, secretary of the Rugby Football Union, would welcome the confrontation, the catharsis that would certainly follow. Because he firmly believes he would win. Wood has only to look back to 1983, two years before his arrival at Twickenham, to know that reality as well as right is on his side.

This was when David Lord, an Australian sports journalist, declared that he had signed precisely 26 players each from all eight of the original rugby-playing countries and would begin the pounds 20m World Championship Rugby in January 1984. He even published a fixture-list to clash with the Five Nations' Championship. Hence Chelsea - where England were supposed to play Wales that March in direct opposition to the real thing at Twickenham.

Only one of these took place. Having missed his original deadline, Lord next announced it would all start in Australia in March with the 1984 Five Nations being the last of its kind. He had spoken of vast salaries for the players and enormous sponsorships from industry, but in the end nothing, absolutely nothing, came to pass.

Lord would hope, 11 years on, to be vindicated, even if only vicariously through Fouroux. The Frenchman has at least one big- money backer in the form of Serge Kampf, who is known for doling out goodies like gold watches and foreign holidays to the French players - who, funnily enough, are said to have been especially receptive to performing in the circus.

Whether Fouroux has wide corporate backing will be clearer when he holds his eagerly anticipated launch press conference in Paris on 21 November. Until then nothing is certain but Wood, for one, positively relishes the prospect of a fight. 'In many ways I would welcome it because it would clear the air,' he said in a radio interview the other day. 'I don't think it would be successful; I don't think it would last. So in a way I say 'fine, get on with it, see what you make of it'. Then when it fails, as I believe it would, we can get back to playing rugby for the right reasons.'

The trouble for Wood is that his 'right reasons' - recreation and fun - are not necessarily shared by players on whom the pressures have never been greater. They may say they do not wish to be contracted rugby players but the lure of easy loot, such as Fouroux says he is offering, has not actually been tested. Wood's argument fails to cater for that committed performer, human nature.

For now the International Rugby Board, whose authority Fouroux is assailing, is officially unwilling to be as aggressively responsive as Wood. No surprise there. What did Keith Rowlands, IRB secretary, think about the supposed circus? 'We don't make responses to supposed anythings,' he said.

'We have read the papers with interest, will await announcements and consider how they impact upon the game and its regulations. One is always concerned when there are suggestions of things that are divisive within our game, but I would wish to await confirmation.'

Oh well, perhaps it will just go away, which is evidently what Vernon Pugh, the IRB chairman, hopes and expects. He has asked Rowlands to find out what on earth is going on and will make his own enquiries when he chairs the board's autumn meeting in Vancouver the week after next. 'If what Jacques Fouroux means is he will seek to establish a professional circus, then I have to say I don't see the sense in it,' he said.

'The interest of international rugby is that it's a game played between countries. A circus travelling to wherever from wherever will play to a diminishing number of spectators. And where will they play? They won't be able to play at rugby union venues. Maybe he's just having a big tease with all of us.' There again . . .

(Photograph omitted)