Rugby Union: No retreat from the march of professionalism

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THE International Board has been taking its annual panning from the critics. Its attempts to reach global accord on the game's two most contentious issues, the laws and amateurism, have been variously described as pathetic and a cop-out to the southern hemisphere.

Such cant, such hypocrisy. It is more than 20 years since the board, with stunning perspicacity, rejected sponsorship on the grounds that it would throw open the door to professionalism. Soon afterwards the first deal was signed for sponsorship of a club knock-out competition - not in the southern hemisphere, mark you, but in England.

The Rugby Football Union, in its laudable but often futile efforts to stall the march towards professionalism, has stuck more digits than most other unions into the dyke which, despite its efforts, is gradually being washed away. The latest report from its working party set up to investigate breaches in the amateur regulations can be a surprise only in the extent of the abuse at club level, not that it happens.

Anyone remotely associated with the game knows that the laws have been broken by some, bent by others and strictly adhered to by a derisory few. Each has a story to relate, and although the RFU is encouraging the tale-tellers to spill the beans, the accumulation of hard evidence has been, and will continue to be, the problem. The threat that clubs 'reasonably suspected' of making illegal payments to players face punishment is a puny sanction unlikely to deflect the determinedly committed from their course.

It is possible, of course, to take stronger measures against the clubs but this could be counter- productive and would not discriminate between the guilty and the innocent. Take the case of Northampton. Unlike a number of ruthlessly ambitious clubs, Northampton do not pay match fees to their players. They argue that they do not have to offer such inducements to attract the best to Franklin's Gardens. It is the players who contact Northampton, not the other way about.

Now whether or not Northampton, in their remarkable rise from obscurity to elite status in just five years, have ever exploited loopholes in the amateur regulations, I would not know. Nor do I care. Had there been relegation at the end of the 1988 season, the Saints would have been marching ingloriously out of the Second Division and into the Third. Had that happened it is more than likely that the once great and proud Northampton Football Club would have sunk without trace and, with them, rugby union in the area.

Today the game thrives in the schools, colleges and junior clubs. The town is proud to be associated with the club, which gains more column inches in the local and national press than the cricket and soccer clubs combined. The once bleak and bare stands are packed to capacity with an average home attendance of over 6,000. Along with Bath and Leicester, Northampton is now established as a centre of rugby excellence.

Can this be bad for the game? Of course not. But it is nave to think that it can be achieved without a thoroughly modern and professional attitude. Committees and conveners everywhere are being replaced by boards of management and chief executives. The club has become a business where defeat equals failure and where failure equals financial hardship.

Having liberated the beast and nourished it over the years, the RFU cannot hope to shackle it with red tape, which is what the working party's recommendations amount to. It is a narrow and treacherous path it must now tread.

The same problems have now to be confronted by the International Board, and on a much wider scale which is why the unrest within the disaffected groups increases every year. It is argued that the four home unions should present a united front to the southern hemisphere countries and reassert their influence. But the power base of the game shifted to the southern hemisphere some time ago, and the re- entry of South Africa to world rugby can only strengthen it.

The Australians, at present the hardest of bargainers within the IB, have, like Northampton, worked miracles. What is more they have done it on a shoestring as the poor relations in a country whose sporting idols have traditionally come from the ranks of rugby league and Australian Rules. The amateur game has a constant battle for survival and even their status as world champions is no guarantee of recognition.

We have much to thank the Australians for. They have given us the kicking dispensation, Mark Ella, Nick Farr-Jones and, of course, David Campese. With matchless skill and panache they have also given us the runaround for the last few years. Could that be the reason why so many in Britain now want to trim their wings?

Rugby union is becoming more dishonest by the day and the disunity amongst the world's governing bodies is fuelling that dishonesty. The day cannot be far away when a decision is taken to draw a line down the relevant pages of the law book. On the one side, the forbidden fruit - that payment cannot be made to players for playing the game. On the other side, that players can gain material reward from whatever sources and in whatever garb they choose. What's in a name, for goodness sake? A dinner is a dinner and whether it goes under the banner of a rugby dinner or a sportsman's dinner is immaterial. And why would product endorsement be acceptable in a lounge suit but not in a rugby jersey? It is a farce which is increasingly bringing the game, not the players or the clubs, into disrepute.