Rugby Union: Richards warns of pay chaos

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The Independent Online
IT TOOK rugby union the best part of three decades to rid itself of the scourge of "boot money" - the under-the-table payments to leading players that made a painful mockery of the game's amateur ethic. Now, less than four years into professionalism, the wheel is in serious danger of turning full circle after the Allied Dunbar Premiership clubs' abrupt decision to introduce a wage cap next season.

Two former England forwards, one a revered folk hero and the other a maverick outsider, both warned yesterday that efforts to impose a pounds 1.5m ceiling on squad salaries would be difficult to administer. Dean Richards, director of rugby at champions-elect Leicester, said the system had to be "policed correctly to prevent a return to shamateurism" while Mike Burton, the 1970s Gloucester prop turned rugby entrepreneur, banged the drum for a free market economy by saying: "History tells us that prices and incomes policies never work."

Burton, who acts as an agent for almost 250 players and has made a small fortune out of rugby-linked business ventures, went on to describe the plan as "a diabolical liberty" and added: "The salary cap will cause resentment and set off all sorts of dubious and underhand activities. The clubs are admitting that they can't manage their own affairs. The law of supply and demand should apply."

Not for the first time, however, Burton found himself swimming against the general tide of opinion; most clubs, including the hard-pressed Richmond outfit who were plunged into financial administration a fortnight ago, welcomed the initiative. "We need a code of conduct to prevent cheating," said Tony Hallett, the former Rugby Football Union secretary who is fronting a determined campaign to save Richmond from receivership. "But while the new system is not perfect, it is long overdue. It will guarantee players longer careers, instead of a few high-earning seasons with the threat of redundancy on their shoulders. They will still be earning pretty good money."

Some wages will remain extremely good if John Miitchell gets his way. The England forwards coach was typically hard-nosed in his reaction to the wage restrictions, calling for a sliding scale aimed at rewarding the best players at the expense of the rest. "We shouldn't be penalising the elite; they should be paid according to their status," insisted the former All Black captain from Waikato. "There should be a grading system based on what players are likely to contribute in the future, with incentives and progress rewards for young players."

Bath, one of the elite clubs currently engaged in a brutal round of wage negotiations with a group of high-earning players, will save themselves at least one salary next season, thanks to the departure of their fitness coach, Jim Blair. The experienced New Zealander, whose CV includes spells with his country's Americas Cup sailors as well as the Auckland and All Black sides, will return home at the end of the current campaign to pursue business interests.

Meanwhile, Bath's England Under-21 hooker Andy Long is unlikely to play again before the end of April after undergoing surgery on a torn knee cartilage. Long has lost enormous amounts of ground since winning his first and only full cap against Australia in the autumn of 1997 and his chances of catching the eye of the England coach, Clive Woodward, in time for this autumn's World Cup are remote indeed.

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