Rugby Union: Rugby union becoming closed to the professions

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The Independent Online
HERE IS one wish for 1999. It is, I am afraid, little more than a wish, a pious hope, but it may be worth setting down all the same. It is that the administrators, the clubs' new owners, the players and the supporters, all come to some collective agreement that rugby union cannot and ought not to be a fully professionalised sport - any more than rugby league is, or cricket should be, if that game's controllers could see further than their noses.

Some hope. The pride of too many people is by now too much involved. I do not understand why such figures as Sir John Hall, Ashley Levett, Nigel Wray and Chris Wright should want to throw their money away. They might just as well have a bonfire of fine old English banknotes in the back garden every Saturday night.

This is evidently what they want to do, however, for much the same reason, I suppose, that leads other people to want to own newspapers. Their proprietorship gives them an importance, a position in society - or so they hope - which they would otherwise not possess.

The prestige of leading players has remained unaffected by professionalisation. Indeed, in the Celtic nations it has probably declined. There are no real modern equivalents of Barry John or Bleddyn Williams, Andy Irvine or Gavin Hastings, Mike Gibson or Willie John McBride, to name but a few. The supply of heroes has dried up. It is perhaps significant that England's one recent attempt to create a hero of their own in the person of Will Carling should have ended in 1998 in such ignominious failure.

But unlike some commentators, I do not stigmatise the leading players of today, distinctly on the anti-heroic side though some of them may be, as "greedy." If the money is on offer, they are entitled to take it. It is not they who have created a false market which depends on the beneficence of a few rich men, notably Rupert Murdoch and of various more shadowy figures at the BBC and in ITV.

One sadness is that rugby at the highest level is becoming closed to graduates generally and, in particular, those who intend to follow the profession of medicine or the law. True, barristers have never been specially thick on the ground in top-class rugby, with a few exceptions such as Carl Aarvold of England and Rowe Harding of Wales. But there have been solicitors all over the place, like moths in old books.

The best known recent example was that unmoth-like creature, Brian Moore. Paradoxically, it was Moore who, more than any other player - through his justified intransigence with the England authorities - saw in the new age. He was, if he will forgive the metaphor, the midwife, even though he had to abandon the child on account partly of his advancing years and partly of his profession. He told me a year or so ago that it would be impossible for him, or for anyone, to be at once a practising solicitor and a professional rugby player.

The same applies to medical students or practitioners. In 1947 the England centres were two students from St Mary's Hospital, Nigel Bennett and Keith Scott. They were succeeded by a greater player, Lewis Cannell, of the same hospital. Perhaps the last of the line was Mike Hutton, of Richmond, who was playing alongside Allan Bateman (a former medical laboratory technician) in the centre only months ago but has now retired to concentrate on his duties at Kingston Hospital.

If it had not been for his terrible injury, Gwyn Jones would still be playing. In a recent interview he said that if it had not been for the accident, he would have taken a few years off from his medical studies to concentrate wholly on rugby instead.

Jones must be assumed to know his own business, and both his parents are doctors, too. But I very much doubt whether it is possible to take two or three years out of a medical course and then pick it up at the point at which you put it down.

Schoolteachers are in a better position to start life again because their course is shorter, and they can be qualified in their early 20s. Even so, to devote the rest of that decade of their lives to professional rugby leaves them behind those colleagues who had already started their careers.

And will Dean Richards, the current manager of Leicester, ever go back to the beat? I wish him well. But I also know that many of his younger colleagues will be asking themselves "what do I do next?" once 34 hoves into view.