Rugby Union: Murdoch seals pounds 370m TV deal

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The Independent Online
Rugby union - and not just in the southern hemisphere - yesterday entered an era of Monopoly money when Australia, New Zealand and South Africa announced the launch of new international and provincial competitions and the sale of their television rights to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation for a staggering pounds 370m over the next decade.

Thus on the eve of the World Cup final between the Springboks and All Blacks, Sanza, the acronym by which the new tripartite body will be known, at a stroke guaranteed the end of even the pretence of amateurism. Whatever decision the International Rugby Board makes on this subject at its special Paris meeting in August will be relevant only if it is to abandon the old restrictions altogether.

The developments effectively throw down a challenge to the Five Nations unions, which have already decided to form a more united front by abandoning the divisive and usually divided committee of home unions from September. Details of who will get what were not forthcoming when Louis Luyt, Leo Williams and Richie Guy of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand appeared at Ellis Park yesterday. Luyt said players would not be paid for playing; Williams said it was not the end of amateurism; Guy said the announcement had not changed anything significantly.

They must be kidding. There will be a new three nations' championship in which the participants will annually play each other home and away from 1996 as well as a revamped provincial competition superseding the Super 10 and involving five teams from New Zealand, four from South Africa and three from Australia playing each other on a round-robin basis: 66 matches plus two semi-finals and the grand final. The Pacific islands have, for now at least, been abandoned.

The best guess is that at least 15 per cent of the pounds 370m will go to the players. The deal dwarfs the one Murdoch did with rugby league, amounting to pounds 86m in England and a global pounds 150m. All the talk in April of union having to move closer to league and of the Super League's being a threat to rugby union has been turned on its head.

The rugby administrators who appeared yesterday smugly suggested that all they had done was sell the TV rights and that Murdoch would have no say in the running of games, or indeed the game at large. Even Murdoch himself said as much: "For the benefit of those who will seek to misconstrue this deal, let me be very clear: News Corporation is not going to run rugby union. We have purchased broadcast rights and the game will continue to be run by the unions themselves."

So the big domestic competitions - the Currie Cup in South Africa, Ranfurly Shield and National Championship in New Zealand and State of the Union in Australia - will continue, with incoming and outgoing tours involving northern-hemisphere countries and the Lions (due here in 1997) continuing much as before.

Yesterday's announcement emphasised the lead the southern hemisphere has over the north, not only on the field - witness the presence of South Africa and New Zealand in today's final - but off it as well. This may explain the positive reaction of British rugby's great and good gathered here yesterday.

"They have done us an enormous favour," said Vernon Pugh, chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union and recent chairman of the International Board. "The direct result will be to incentivise the Five Nations to come together and stay together. Money is becoming very important and they have raised the stakes as very successful rugby-playing countries, but minority- viewing countries, and have set the market for us."

Even the Rugby Football Union, perceived as a last bastion of amateurism, will have to respond positively. "Amateurism is in a state of rigor mortis," Tony Hallett, secretary-designate, said. "The pressure on players is such that they can't possibly hold down full-time employment and some of this money will inevitably have to support them in a professional sense.

"The RFU has to examine its whole attitude to amateurism. We have to know where we are going and it would be no good for the development of rugby to say 'up with this we will not put'. The southern hemisphere is saying we are going our way and you can come with us or not."

Rugby World Cup directors claimed the deal would not undermine their tournament, with Marcel Martin suggesting they were indirectly responsible for attracting big money into the sport. "This deal involves the Rugby World Cup champions of 1987, 1991 and 1995," Martin said. "I wonder if RWC are going to get a commission."

For Luyt, the future is positive: "For some time, rugby union has appeared to be threatened by other codes, almost like an injured impala limping through the bushveld with lions nearby," he said. "Today I think those old handicaps have been removed."