Rugby Union: Players should not expect to make a full-time living out of the game

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The Independent Online
ALL the rugby followers I meet are fed up with the continuing wrangle - more exactly, the blazing row - between Cliff Brittle of the Rugby Football Union and assorted Mr Moneybags from the leading clubs. The fans think that everything can be sorted out with a little give and take and a bit of goodwill on both sides.

This, alas, is the trouble. Goodwill is the commodity that is in distinctly short supply. One might as well ask for more of it among Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims or between the two communities in Northern Ireland.

Or, as a leading article in the old Manchester Guardian once put it: "It is greatly to be hoped that persons of goodwill and moderation will come together, and wiser counsels yet prevail."

My own view is that things have gone too far, and that some structure on the lines of the Football Association and Football League will have to be set up.

I also believe that, where there is acute controversy about money, and to whom it properly belongs, the only people who can resolve matters are judges. That, after all, is their job. I have come to this conclusion reluctantly, because the only people who are guaranteed to benefit from litigation are the lawyers.

However, that a judge may know nothing about the game does not bother me in the least. Instead of "who is Gazza?" he may ask: "Who is this Mr Dallaglio? Is he Italian, by any chance?" This does not matter. All a judge needs to know is that the captain of England, who also happens to be captain of his club, Wasps, has entered into a separate contract with the RFU - assuming, for the moment, that Lawrence Dallaglio has indeed entered into such an agreement.

To pronounce on questions of this nature no judge needs to have a knowledge of rugby, still less of what is called "ordinary life" - which is assumed to consist largely of knowing about pop music and current films.

Nevertheless, the instinct that these troublesome matters should, as far as possible, be kept away from the gentlemen in wigs is a sound one. If a conflict can be resolved, it is always better to resolve it by agreement.

The fundamental difficulty is that rugby cannot survive in its present professional form without huge injections of cash from television. It is doubtful whether it can survive wholly professionally even with these subsidies. The nearest equivalent is county cricket, which likewise maintains a professional structure that is not justified by the level of public support.

Last Saturday, for instance, Wasps v Sale at Loftus Road drew an embarrassingly small crowd of 3,500. That number would have fitted, just about, into the club's old ground at Sudbury.

Quite apart from this consideration, I doubt whether rugby should be played at the Queen's Park Rangers ground at all. There are laws about the size of the playing area, less flexible than those for football; and Loftus Road is simply too small.

The question of home advantage is something else. Wasps v Sale at a neutral ground would probably have resulted in an even lower attendance. But in principle cup semi-finals should surely be held at such grounds.

The 9,000 at Franklins Gardens for, on the afternoon, the better game of Northampton v Saracens was not much to shout about either. The only English clubs I can think of that would draw five-figure crowds at home are Leicester and Bath. In France, by contrast, the cup semi-finals (played on neutral grounds, on the Saturday and Sunday) between them draw a crowd in excess of 30,000.

I was always in favour both of professionalism and of full interchangeability between union and league. But by "professionalism" I meant that players should be paid for their trouble, their effort and the disruption of their social life - not that they should expect to make a full-time living out of the game.

In this respect rugby union has modelled itself on football rather than on the old rugby league, as it should have done had its organisers been more realistic.

It has modelled itself on football in another respect as well. Clubs have become rich men's baubles. No doubt Newcastle and Saracens would not be the forces they now are if, respectively, Sir John Hall and Nigel Wray had not invested in them. But I do not think the change is for the good of the game all the same.

This does not mean I support Brittle and Fran Cotton in their attempt to regionalise rugby: far from it. London v North-west at Loftus Road would have been lucky to draw 1,500.

The short-term palliative is a rationalisation of the fixture list, which will mean that the preliminary European matches and, maybe, more matches generally will have to be played in mid-week. But the conflict may have gone too far for this remedy to work on its own.