Rugby Union: The world in their hands

Thorburn tries to build on a battle ground
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The Independent Online
From his office in the heart of Cardiff, Paul Thorburn can see the construction of the south side of the Millennium Stadium, close to the River Taff. The question everybody asks him is: "Will the project be completed in time for the World Cup?"

"I can only go by what the contractors tell us," Thorburn said. As host country, Wales play Argentina in the first match on 1 October but Laing's, the contractors responsible for the largest sports construction project in this country for 75 years, have a deadline of 16 June, 10 days before Wales consecrate the pounds 120m stadium with a game against South Africa. Whether the retractable roof will be in place by then is open to doubt, but, as it is, permission had to be given for round-the-clock shifts to keep the 72,500-seat stadium on schedule.

More rumours have surrounded the progress of this building than there are daffodils in spring. The most fashionable conjecture involves predicting alternatives should the stadium miss its deadline. Murrayfield, Stade de France and Twickenham have all been mentioned. The request for 24-hour working was the first sign of trouble, although the company maintained it had been incorporated into the original schedule. Permission for the round-the-clock operation was granted by Cardiff City Council who, along with the Wales Tourist Board and the Wales Development Agency, have a keen interest in the showpiece.

The Webb Ellis Cup was first lifted by New Zealand in Auckland in 1987 and then by Australia at Twickenham in 1991 and South Africa in Johannesburg in 1995. Those showpieces were Boy Scout jamborees compared to what has happened to the game since. "The previous World Cups were held in the good old amateur days," said Thorburn, whose appointment as manager of Rugby World Cup by the Welsh Rugby Union nearly three years ago coincided with rugby going professional. "One of the most difficult things is that professionalism has raised many issues, some of which may have an impact on the running of the tournament."

To survey the fall-out Thorburn needs to wear a hard hat: as a sample there's the uncivil war between England's clubs and the Rugby Football Union; the conflict between the RFU, the WRU and the International Rugby Board; the unholy alliance between Cardiff and Swansea and the English Premiership, which has led to fines on the RFU and the two Welsh clubs, who all say they will not pay. "There have been a lot of battles," Thorburn said, "and some of the people involved in them are also involved in the World Cup." The ultimate sanction facing England is expulsion from the IRB and the World Cup itself.

"If that were to happen," Thorburn said, "it would obviously have a big impact but we are planning the tournament on the basis that the four home unions and France are organising the event, 20 countries are competing and there will be 41 matches. Unfortunately, there was probably never a right time or a wrong time for the introduction of the professional era. Perhaps more time was needed to advise the unions on how the game could best be structured.

"Rugby has always relied on tours to keep countries going and inevitably there has been a demand for more and more. This in turn has had an impact on the club scene. With a lot of clubs being controlled by owners everybody wants their pound of flesh with the inevitable conflict. As to a solution, that is another matter."

As a goal-kicking full-back for Neath and Wales, Thorburn won 37 caps and scored 304 points, second only to Neil Jenkins. "When the game went professional every player in Wales who had put on a pair of boots thought they should be paid. It doesn't stack up. Only players at the top level should be paid. It doesn't even stack up in England, where financial resources are greater.

"The situation regarding Cardiff and Swansea is very sad. There are many clubs in Wales who probably want better competition. Cardiff and Swansea aren't the only two who deserve quality opposition. The timing is such that they are stronger now than in previous years but there are other clubs with great traditions, great successes, who have not broken away. Where it'll all end I've no idea. It may be a brutal thing to say, but it's not my problem."

Thorburn's problem, against such a background, is managing the greatest rugby show on earth. At least he has a blueprint from the 1991 World Cup, which was staged in this country and France. "Apart from some cosmetic changes we can mirror the format which is tried and tested," Thorburn said.

"As the WRU are the official hosts this time, it will be themed on Wales." A budget of pounds 1m will be spent on the opening and closing ceremonies.

In 1991, when England reached the final, the profit was a modest pounds 5.5m. Next autumn the projected gross commercial revenue is $105m. The figure is in US dollars probably because RWC, who hold all the commercial rights, television, sponsorship, merchandising etc, have appointed Mark McCormack's International Management Group to manage the money-making operation.

Corporate hospitality will be big, with five companies appointed to sell packages. For pounds 189 you can eat, drink and be merry watching Fiji against Namibia in Beziers or Western Samoa versus Japan at Wrexham; pounds 259 will get you France versus Canada, pounds 350 Ireland versus USA, pounds 500 Wales versus Argentina and pounds 600 a quarter- final at Twickenham.

For the final at Cardiff on 6 November, 6,000 packages are being offered at pounds 850 each, excluding VAT. It includes a four- course meal, champagne, free bar, car parking and a celebrity speaker. Oh, and a ticket to the match. It will be somewhat different to the last game Thorburn watched, Bonymaen versus Llandovery.

In the inaugural World Cup in the southern hemisphere in 1987 (when England were unspeakably bad), Thorburn kicked a touch-line conversion in the dying seconds to beat Australia and give Wales third place. Australia are his tip for 1999. "Wales are in a tough pool and they'll do well to get to the semi-finals. New Zealand are always worthy of support but overall I like the look of Australia."

In 12 months' time Thorburn will be looking for another job. "Let's just hope," he said, "for a more enjoyable rugby year. Whatever happens on the domestic scene, the game, God forbid, has not reached the stage where players don't want to represent their country and playing international rugby in the World Cup is the ultimate. That element should ensure a great event."