Leicester, the English champions, yesterday acted to safeguard their assets by putting their players on semi-professional contracts worth pounds 1,000 a month for the rest of the season. A first-team squad of 20 are being offered a total of pounds 6,000 each.
The extreme turbulence in the game was re-emphasised when Steve Bates, Wasps' long-serving scrum-half, became the latest to defect to Newcastle, though his acceptance of Sir John Hall's shilling is somewhat less contentious than those of Rob Andrew and Dean Ryan. They have been told they will not be chosen again.
Andrew is one reason for Leicester's pioneering announcement. Unsettled by offers from other clubs, headed by Andrew's newly enriched Newcastle, they have decided to pay their players, albeit quite modestly, despite the Rugby Football Union's moratorium on club professionalism.
The moratorium is now thoroughly discredited, though Leicester are taking the precaution of initially contracting their players for off-the-field promotional activity rather than for playing. Bristol last week said they would embrace "full professionalism" as soon as the RFU would allow - which, if Tony Hallett of the RFU is to be believed, is right now.
In any event, some of the aspects covered by the moratorium are widely expected to be abandoned at the end of the month, among them the 120-day stand-down period for transferred players, which was the reason Andrew, Newcastle's development director, carried on playing for Wasps until they no longer wanted him.
In addition Hallett, the RFU secretary, has indicated in advance of the findings of the union's professionalism commission that, in order to give the likes of Leicester a defence against the depredations of Newcastle, clubs will no longer be prevented from drawing up their own contracts.
Peter Wheeler, Leicester president and former England captain, met Hallett yesterday. "Our players have been told we are offering them contracts that will come into effect as soon as they sign," Wheeler said. "We want to hold on to our players and the only way to do that is to tell them they have a future with us.
"We are going to fund the contracts by getting off our backsides and working harder to gain sponsorship and backing. The RFU has left us defenceless in the current season and this is our response. The moratorium is no good if players are still moving clubs."
Like Ryan, Bates, a 32-year-old teacher, has been taken on by Andrew as a development officer, which means he would qualify for a salary of pounds 150,000 over three years. The difference is that the Welsh-born scrum- half, capped once by England, does not intend starting until July.
In view of the rumpus over Andrew's recruitment of Ryan, followed by Nick Popplewell, Bates yesterday kindly undertook not to purloin any more of Sudbury's finest in the interim. A Wasp since 1981, he had already informed the club that this would be his final season. "I've been at the club for a long time and wouldn't want to leave under any sort of cloud."
This is not to say he will not be on the look-out elsewhere. "It's going to be a similar role to the one Dean Ryan has," Bates said. "We will be responsible for the coaching and the development of the youth, schools' liaison.
"We will be looking at universities and looking at player-recruitment and also looking at all the training methods and what we're going to do on the pitch. I have a teaching job which I can't leave until Easter at the earliest, but I'm probably going to stay for the summer term as well."
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