Rugby Union: Hall's solo departure

Paul Trow finds the other owners are still in for the long run
EXIT the speculator, enter the speculation. As Sir John Hall announced he was offloading his controlling interest in Newcastle Falcons, the spotlight moved quickly on to his fellow high-profile, big-spending club owners, and the question of whether any of them would be tempted to follow suit.

After all, with one estimate that the debts underwritten by Hall's Cameron Hall Developments at the English club champions were as high as pounds 9m, it would be no great surprise if the commitment of the rest was beginning to waver. But with the possible exception of Frank Warren, who talked about selling Bedford for pounds 1 after his costly legal battle with Don King, the answer seems to be "no".

Take Nigel Wray, whose investment helped Saracens to finish second behind Newcastle and lift the Tetley's Bitter Trophy last season. In the same week that Sir John is bowing out, Wray has committed a further pounds 4.5m to Saracens over the next three years to add to his initial stake of pounds 3m.

"Nobody is claiming we've not made mistakes since we started investing in the clubs, but rugby is still a tremendous market," he said. "Saracens are located in the most valuable TV market in Europe - north London and the northern Home Counties. What we need is to invest. The market doesn't come to you, you have to go to it.

"I'm not putting money in to receive cash or dividends. I want to create something of real value - build up the brand and make it a success. If you look at football, 95 per cent of clubs make a trading loss. It doesn't mean those making losses don't have a capital value - they are established brands.

"The problem for Sir John was that Tyneside is a football area and spectators won't turn up to watch rugby. Paradoxically, his side were so good that when they played away they attracted much larger crowds than at home."

Keith Barwell, the majority shareholder at Northampton, acknowledges that Newcastle's circumstances were different to those of other leading clubs. "As a group, I suppose we've been investing around pounds 25m a year, but Sir John more than most of us started from scratch - he had no team, no gates, nothing.

"I went into it, and I suppose the same applies to Nigel Wray, as a rugby fan with a love of the game and because I wanted my local club to be successful. I felt from the outset that it had a 50 per cent chance of working because there would only be room for about eight English sides to survive in the professional game.

"One of the problems is that entrepreneurs like Sir John are go-getters. They kick down any doors in their way. But the blazers who held all the power for a century were not going to give that up lightly. Eventually, Sir John stacked his end and walked away."

Also set to walk away is Tony Tiarks, whose share in London Scottish will be bought by Bristol if the West Country club fail to secure promotion to Premiership One. Despite this potential turn of events, Tiarks still believes in rugby's value.

"The game's as good as it's ever been in terms of opportunity," he said. "My own position is simple - I put up money to act as a catalyst. Having acquired a franchise in London Scottish, I expected a lot of interest from other people. The reality is that all the bickering and lack of co- operation over the last two years would have put anyone off.

"We've put up a lot of our own money, but that doesn't mean the game can continue to expect people like us to keep writing cheques. Having said that, two things need to be recognised - rugby is a much better spectator sport than it used to be and the camaraderie of the amateur game remains intact below the top level.

"I would have preferred to make my investment today than two years ago, but it's a bit like the guy who builds a golf course. Usually, he isn't the one who gets the benefit, it's the third owner down the road who makes a profit. But no one should go into it thinking in terms of profit or loss returns."

Wasps' owner, Chris Wright, agrees. "Anybody can buy success and win the title but it's not about the short-term, it's about next year and the year after that. We beat Bath by a record score last Sunday with a back division made up of young English players. It's not necessary to pay pounds 250,000 to get a top French player into your squad."

Tom Walkinshaw, who owns Gloucester, has an investment in rugby which amounts to loose change, compared with the pounds 110m he recently received from a Nigerian prince for a 70 per stake in his Arrows motor-racing team. Yet he is passionate about the game, though under no illusions as to the importance of the next 12 months.

"The World Cup will be very good for the clubs. A lot of our international players will be on duty for their countries, which can only promote the game in the right way," he said. "But the most important thing is having a stable calendar. We're going to publish our fixture list for 1999-2000 next month. Nothing is going to stop us doing that. Not releasing our fixtures before this season was a marketing and promotional disaster, and we're not going to allow that to happen again."

Barwell believes a European competition, perhaps embracing 16 sides, is essential. "We need quality fixtures. The amateur game was only breaking even and professionalism suddenly meant an extra pounds 2.5m being paid out each year. In fact, the clubs have done remarkably well in increasing their gates and revenues. Even now there's no shortage of money in rugby, but it's been a frustrating experience.

"When I first got involved, if I'd known what I know now, I'd be more inclined to side with the hawks. We should have broken away immediately and then we wouldn't have had all the piss-pot politicking which has taken up so much of everybody's time over the last two years.

"It would have had the same effect as a punch-up in the first five minutes of a match. It would have cleared the air and we could have then got on with running the game."