Rugby Union: Players' concerns find voice

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The Independent Online
THREE STRIFE-TORN years to the day - 26 August, 1995 - since rugby union announced in Paris that the game was now professional, the political pawns of the past 36 months, the players, have finally set up an organisation to represent their best interests and welfare.

The Professional Rugby Players Association was officially launched from its headquarters at the Rugby Club of St James in the heart of London's West End yesterday. There was no fanfare, no beating of drums, merely a trio of hard-eyed rugby players past and present setting out their stall. And there is no doubt they mean business.

Brian Moore is a solicitor with a stream of records behind him as England's most capped hooker. If the authorities thought they had heard the last of him when he peeled the black tape from his ears for the last time a few months ago, they have another thought coming. Also on the top table was Wasps' Lawrence Dallaglio, some-time captain of England who may be reappointed for this season - unless the management stick with Matt Dawson who led them on the Australian tour in the summer - as eloquent a debater as ever pulled on an England shirt, who was present as figurehead for the new organisation. And finally the man behind it all, another Wasp, Damian Hopley.

Hopley was inspired to set up the association after suffering a career- threatening knee injury more than two years ago when he captained England in the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens Tournament. Six operations, 29 months and a lot of lost earnings later, Hopley's repeated efforts to persuade the Rugby Football Union to pay him some compensation has met with nothing more than the pounds 9,000 medical costs he incurred. He is pursuing the matter independently of the PRA, but future cases would find the weight of the organisation behind them.

Hopley - acting chief executive of the PRA at least until Christmas, by which time he will have discovered whether his playing career is over - explained: "I just felt that no other player should have to go through what I am presently undergoing, if the unthinkable were ever to happen to them. The aims of the PRA are primarily to protect the interests and welfare of professional rugby players in England, regardless of their nationality."

Hopley, who consulted the professional Cricketers Association along the way, has spent the past few months knocking on the doors of players in Allied Dunbar Premiership One and Two (to whom membership is limited) to drum up support and, more importantly, the pounds 100 annual subscription from each of them. To date about 475 of the 700-odd players who qualifyhave put their money where this new mouthpiece is.

The PRA, which wants a representative on the RFU management board and, ultimately, on the International Board, has targeted three areas it wishes to concentrate on initially: the provision of legal and contractual insurance for players; the setting-up of an educational and careers advice bureau to prepare professional players for life after rugby, and, finally, the establishment of benevolent funds. They hope to raise cash through annual grants totalling pounds 150,000 from the RFU, EFDR and ESDR (these last two the bodies responsible for the First and Second Division clubs) as well as from blue chip companies.

Other plans include setting out a code of conduct for players' agents and maybe even vetting them. As Hopley said: "There are a lot of sharks out there." Maybe, but it sounds as though they are going to have to deal with some big fish.