Rugby Union: Kellam's lore of economics

Tim Glover hears a young player count the cost of turning professional
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The Independent Online
WHEN Rob Kellam made his debut for London Irish he was up against Harlequins' old bulldog, who answered to the name of Brian Moore. "I tried to make things awkward for him," Kellam said. "He said, `Don't be silly, son' and I thought, `Oh, OK'."

Afterwards Moore congratulated the young hooker on his scrummaging ability. It was 1993 and Kellam, via the University of Portsmouth and Newbury, had arrived. Two months ago, when London Irish were involved in a play- off against Rotherham for survival in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, Kellam went off in the second half after taking an elbow in the face. "I went to blow my nose and blood shot out." He had a fractured cheekbone.

The Exiles survived a torrid afternoon but afterwards the atmosphere at Sunbury, where they need no excuse to roll out a barrel of the black stuff, was strange. For investors, the new board of directors, the new coach Dick Best and the supporters, victory over Rotherham came as a huge relief. Yet the players' talk was of one subject: who, and how many, were leaving the club. It was known that several internationals were heading for Dungannon and a reunion with Willie Anderson, who a few months earlier had been sacked as London Irish coach.

Kellam, capped by England at A and Under-21 levels, had been offered a provisional contract for this season and was keen, at 27, to give up his day job and commit himself fully to the professional cause. He had no reason to suspect he would not be required, but when his agent went in to negotiate he was told there would be no contract. "Instead of a has-been, I was a could-have-been-that-never-was," Kellam said. "When my agent gave me the news my reaction was to laugh. It's a strange way to run a business. I'd heard all about the debacles and this seemed fairly typical. My agent's commission dropped dramatically."

With some clubs in receivership and others racking up huge debts, Kellam's experience should serve as a warning to young players. Compared to most, though, he is fortunate.

Five years ago he was recruited from Newbury to the Irish by the All Black Hika Reid, then the Exiles' coach. Kellam, a qualified quantity surveyor, enjoyed a season at Sunbury with Clive Woodward before spending four months in Perth with the University of Western Australia. In 1995 Woodward asked him to return. The club won promotion with Kellam playing in every game bar one.

Almost overnight the sport went professional but Kellam had landed a marketing job. When he joined the club he had received travelling expenses; now he was getting a retainer and a match-fee of pounds 500. "Most of the players were on part-time contracts which were not renegotiated," Kellam said. "Although I was training twice a day I began to think I was a part-timer in a full-time game." After Anderson had replaced Woodward, Kellam asked for a new contract.

"I was told it was impossible under the budget. In fact we were asked to take a reduction in match fees to help pay for Anderson's move from Ireland to London. At the time London Irish was much more of a club than a business. There was more unity among the squad than in other clubs and we wanted to help the club. I spent more time on rugby and less on my job, which also cost me money.

"At the end of last season I was led to believe I'd be offered a new contract but it meant nothing. All the meetings the players had with management went out of the window. I was so disillusioned I couldn't even watch any of the tours on television."

Kellam, now working full-time, is considering offers from second and third division clubs. He reckons the Premiership salaries of between pounds 50,000 and pounds 60,000 will now be closer to pounds 40,000-pounds 50,000, the second division pounds 15,000-pounds 20,000, and the third down to pounds 4,000-pounds 10,000. "I think clubs have cleared the decks too soon to bring in people for pounds 20,000-pounds 30,000. There are those now on less money than lower-class players were being paid two years ago."

Kellam never got involved with the Rugby Union Players' Association. "I like to think I was smart enough not to be taken for granted. I would like to have gone the whole hog but maybe I played it just about right. I enjoyed the old amateur days and I enjoyed professionalism.

"The problem is that money has changed the motivation of players completely. As a student I would travel anywhere for a train fare and as often as anybody asked me. Now it's gone to the other extreme. Players wouldn't dream of travelling from A to B unless they were paid. Money has destroyed the motivation and it will only get worse because now they are used to being paid from day one."

After leaving Sunbury at the end of May, looking like a victim of GBH, he received no compensation, no letter of thanks. "It was a pretty sad way to finish," he said. "I walked out of the gate and that was it. I'd liked to have said goodbye to the supporters. They were good to me." Will he visit Sunbury? "If I'm in the area."