Rugby Union: Self-destruction

Chris Rea despairs for the future after rugby's latest spectacular own-goal
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The Independent Online
For spin doctors, read own-goal specialists. Of the countless scored by the Rugby Football Union in recent months, none has been more spectacularly struck than the belter which hit the back of the net on Friday after the document written by the RFU's media consultant had allegedly been leaked to the clubs. As defensive blunders go, this was a whopper. Was it the same advisers, one wonders, who stage-managed the widely published photograph at England's abortive squad session of the hapless Derek Morgan standing underneath that road sign denoting uncertainty and confusion?

Certainly the bewilderment etched on the faces of the RFU committee on Friday night was comparable only with Mike Gatting's reaction to the Shane Warne delivery which unhinged him in the Test Match three years ago. Spin doctors indeed! They should stick to cricket. And, come to think of it, so should the RFU, because if the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs Limited get their hooks into it, there might not be much rugby left for them to oversee.

It has been obvious to all but the most blinkered for some time now that the clubs were not going to accept what has been on offer since May, and yet as recently as a fortnight ago, in the lamest and tamest of interviews on Rugby Special, Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, was whittering on about "our good friends the clubs", and "a mutually acceptable agreement being imminent". Balderdash.

The clubs, it appears, are prepared to hang on until they get what they want. If, as they claim, they are on the point of carrying the Scots, Welsh and Irish clubs with them, then the Unions are in deep trouble. The involvement of BSkyB in all this is, of course, crucial. Sam Chisholm, the head man, has been strangely silent since the RFU were re-admitted to the fold and has been uncontactable, despite repeated attempts by the Home Unions to speak to him.

Few would argue with Epruc's contention that a professional game should be run by professionals, but on what authority is this undemocratically formed group the organisation to do it? In 25 years of covering rugby I have, until this season, never heard of their chairman Donald Kerr, nor have I seen him at Harlequins. So who is he and what are his credentials to run not only the English game but now, it seems, the game in Europe?

It was only a matter of weeks ago that I was in detailed discussions with Kim Deshayes, Epruc's newly appointed chief executive, over a Trivision screen at Lord's Cricket Ground. That was in his former life as managing director of a company specialising in perimeter advertising. A thoroughly agreeable man, he knows as much about rugby as I do about rate cards. He will at least be able to advise the clubs that, as they go into battle with Sky, their advertising and sponsorship revenue will fall through the floor.

Then there are the entrepreneur owners, of whom only Nigel Wray at Saracens is a devout rugby follower, who could be counted upon to put the game before personal gain. It is an unholy mess, a calamity for rugby and if, as seems increasingly likely, the clubs win the day, then any similarity with the game as it was will be purely coincidental.

Another final chapter was written on rugby's proud past last week with the funeral service for Clem Thomas, the former Captain of Wales, British Lion, broadcaster and writer. A man of limitless energy and boundless joie de vivre, he played the game when the only demand made of the players was to extract the maximum enjoyment from their pastime. Never was a responsibility more enthusiastically discharged. The tales of Clem's escapades, many of them in the company of his bosom friend and inseparable companion, the England flanker Peter Robbins, are legion and legendary.

It was Robbins who once famously remarked that Clem was the only man he knew who took his civil life on to the rugby field. "And in civil life," said Robbins, "he was a wholesale butcher." Unquestionably, it was better to have Thomas as a friend than a foe, yet physically intimidating and ruthlessly competitive as he was on the field, he was a man of infinite generosity and kindness off it. His writing carried a rare sensitivity and lightness of touch, his criticism always tempered by compassion which is why so many current players turned up to pay their last respects in Swansea last Thursday.

He was no Luddite, recognising that the game had to move forward but that it should do so at a realistic pace and under the control of those who understood its unique quirks and foibles. Clem lived his life at 100 miles an hour and, despite a major heart attack six years ago, was doing around 95 when he hit the wall last week. He would have had it no other way.

Five months ago after that warning shot, he was back at the National Stadium in Cardiff covering an international match when he was trapped in a lift which had developed an electrical fault. When eventually he was rescued, he staggered out scorched and singed but shouting triumphantly - "that's twice the Grim Reaper has taken a swipe at me and missed". At the third stroke, alas, Clem's time had come, but he leaves behind a host of memories. His company enlivened countless occasions, his laughter has filled clubhouses and bars all over the rugby world and will echo for as long as those privileged to have shared his friendship gather to remember the best of days, the truest of friends and the finest of men.