Rugby Union: Salvaging the legacy of professional rugby's revolution

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The Independent Online
I HAVE always had a liking for the story of the Scottish preacher describing the torments of the damned: "O Lord," they cry, "we did'na ken." And the good Lord looks down on them and says in his infinite mercy: "Well, ye ken noo."

Likewise, I ken noo about professional rugby union. It is nasty, brutish and the cause of more division - between clubs and unions, clubs and other clubs, countries and other countries - than I should ever have thought possible.

What makes it worse is that, from the moment I started this column 12 years ago, I was in favour of professional rugby. This caused me not exactly to fall out with but certainly to have heated arguments with several friends, including the late Clem Thomas.

But what I did not want or expect was a state of affairs where players earned a full-time living from rugby. One or two in each club, the equivalent, of say, Jonathan Davies when he was playing for Widnes and later Warrington, might be in a position to claim a proper wage. When he was with Widnes even such an accomplished performer as Alan Tait had to supplement his earnings by working as a groundsman.

Rugby union professionals would, I thought, be in the same position. The majority of them would carry on at their normal jobs, as teachers, policemen, bricklayers or what-have-you.

In addition they would be both recompensed for the time they gave to the game and also rewarded for the pleasure they provided for others.

On no account, I thought, should rugby go the same way as cricket, where public support for the game does not justify a professional structure, and the counties have to rely on redistributed Test match takings (notably money from television) and on a proliferation of one-day competitions. Even so, cricket pays low wages, except to a few star performers, and it does not normally pay anyone through the course of a full year.

As things have turned out, rugby has not followed cricket but, rather, football. It has done so in two respects. First, players expect to be - and indeed are - paid large sums for what is, despite the rigours of modern training, very little work in terms of hours put in. And second, the leading clubs have become the possessions of rich men.

Professionalisation, as such, does not logically entail such a development. It may have become necessary owing to the ridiculously high wages that are now being paid. But county cricket has not gone the same way as football - as rugby union now seems to be heading.

The counties may go in for sponsorship, corporate hospitality and other tawdry accessories. But they do not have the equivalent of Sir John Hall at Newcastle, Nigel Wray at Saracens, Frank Warren at Bedford, Chris Wright at Wasps or Ashley Levett at Richmond, to name but a few. The counties, as far as I know, are still voluntary associations distinct from limited companies, public or private.

There is one bright spot: the arrival of players from rugby league. This again is nothing to do logically with professionalisation as it has developed in England. Interchangeability between the codes, which I had long urged, came about before the move to full professionalism. Nevertheless, league players would not be coming union's way if the money was not good.

It has been said that they have not travelled well. Robbie Paul at Harlequins, and Henry Paul and Jason Robinson at Bath, have been cited as examples of unsatisfactory conversion.

For various reasons, Robinson was not given an extended run in the Bath side. But on the occasions when I did manage to catch a glimpse of him - for he was elusive both in his play on the field and in his appearances on the team sheet - he impressed me as the equal of any wing in the Premiership.

And what about Scott Gibbs, one of the heroes of the Lions' success in South Africa in summer, 1997? Or Allan Bateman, who was also on that tour and was not a first choice for the Test side, but who remains perhaps the best all-round centre in Europe?

His only rival in the British Isles, Jeremy Guscott apart, is the league player, Gary Connolly, who had a brief pre-Christmas spell with Harlequins a few seasons ago and was man of the match in virtually every game he played. Clive Woodward, the England coach, has been making enquiries with a view to his inclusion in the World Cup squad.

But the honest cash in the game will support only a few Connollys in one side at any one time. The sooner this is recognised the better for everybody.