Rugby Union: Professionals on return road

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The Rugby Football Union yesterday let slip the great secret of last week's International Board meeting in Vancouver: that when the board holds its annual meeting in Bristol in March the century- old bar on professional rugby league players returning to rugby union will be lifted.

Under legal pressure around the globe, but especially in Australia and New Zealand, the IB will certainly agree to reinstatement after a maximum three-year 'stand-down' period of suspension, if not to the two years preferred by the Antipodeans. Even the reluctant RFU accepts that the concept of a lifetime ban is no longer legally tenable.

Though governed by pragmatism rather than principle, it will be an historic step which, to give one prominent example, will have the immediate effect of readmitting the former Wales prop Stuart Evans, who has begun legal proceedings against the IB.

The AGM will be a momentous occasion when, quite apart from the rugby league issue, the laws relating to amateurism will be redrafted and significantly loosened in recognition that the rugby world abounds with 'shamateur' hypocrisy.

For now the IB has asked the Australians and New Zealanders to bring forward a new reinstatement regulation that would stand up in a court of law - a devilishly complicated undertaking since the board now has 65 member unions -and at the same time maintain some control on the movement of players between codes without leaving a wide-open door.

Australia would be content for the reinstatement to apply only for club rugby, but New Zealand would be prepared to go further and, as in the case of Brett Iti and Auckland, include provincial rugby - though no one is yet ready to go all the way by letting the prodigals return at international level.

'It's a major concession,' John Jeavons-Fellows, one of the RFU's IB representatives, said at Twickenham yesterday. 'Legal opinion tells us there is a list of things which the present regulation (a lifetime ban) breaches.

Legal opinion is saying that if this were challenged in Australia and New Zealand, the whole of the regulation would be thrown out and we would be faced with a completely free gangway with no stand-down at all.'

With rugby union having already opened itself up sufficiently for players to be permitted to make money off the field out of their on-the-field fame, the game has also left itself wide open to restraint-of- trade actions if it does not eradicate the lifetime ban.

Dennis Easby, the RFU president, former chairman of the International Board's amateurism committee and a solicitor, added: 'We sought the opinion of leading counsel and are definitely advised that it is effectively restraint of choice that can indirectly affect your ability to earn money.

Everyone is saying the old idea, that if you play rugby league for material benefit you couldn't come back for life, is unacceptable. You don't get life for murder now.'

Elsewhere in amateurism's murky waters, the RFU secretary, Dudley Wood, repeated yesterday that it was most unlikely any action would be taken against Mike Catt following his revelation that he had been paid by Eastern Province, even though the IB has sent a letter to Twickenham asking for an investigation.