Rugby Union: Just the ticket for Burton

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MIKE BURTON, perennial poacher of black-market tickets to service the biggest unofficial corporate-hospitality business in rugby union, was turned into a gamekeeper yesterday when the Welsh Rugby Union awarded him its own corporate-hospitality contract. Twickenham will not be amused.

This may seem like asking a pickpocket to look after the Crown Jewels, but in fact the WRU has gone for a proven operator and been quite open about it. 'There is no one in the market with his level of expertise,' Jonathan Price, the WRU commercial executive, said in frank acknowledgement that, unable to beat Burton, the union had better join with him.

Burton, 46, a prop forward who won 17 England caps from 1972 to 1978 and remains the only England player to have been sent off in an international, enjoys his reputation as a rogue and does not feel his credibility has been undermined by legitimacy. He is already commercial manager of Gloucester, his old club. 'It was not a case of me approaching the WRU. They came after me, and that appealed to me.'

The union admits that many of its clubs have habitually sold their tickets to Burton; some, Price said, would have been in financial trouble if they had not. 'If you are trying to establish an official operation and one of the objectives is to clean up a messy market, there's no better way than to get your biggest competitor on your side,' he added.

Henceforward, clubs can forward their tickets to Mike Burton Management without fear of sanction but the WRU is understood to be putting up 500 per match to get the scheme going, with committee members making a supreme sacrifice by having their allocation reduced by five each.

For a basic pounds 385, packages will include lunch and tea at Cardiff Castle and a commemorative souvenir from the WRU. Burton anticipates the business being worth pounds 200,000 in the first year and is understood to be looking to make the union pounds 250,000 over three years, his cut apparently being something over 10 per cent.

'The WRU came to me with a realistic, commonsense approach and if any governing body comes to me and can show they want money for the good of their game I will always be willing to go legit and run the operation for them,' Burton, a keen self-publicist, said.

'Twickenham have chosen to put their heads in the sand while the WRU have taken a realistic approach. I have always enjoyed the reputation of being a market leader, a bloke who is capable of cocking a snook at people who say you can't do this or go in there. What I'm selling is the spontaneous singing of a nation.'