Rugby Union: Tyne is right for Tuigamala

Simon Turnbull attends the unveiling of rugby's first million- pound signing
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The Independent Online
Sir John Hall had been this way before. There was no horde of screaming Geordies outside - just three young lads clutching autograph books, sheltering from the elements in Kingston Park's foyer - but the formal unveiling of Va'aiga Tuigamala as a Newcastle Falcon was rugby union's equivalent of Alan Shearer's homecoming as Newcastle United's pounds 15m man six months ago.

As the bronzed Sir John - whisked directly from Newcastle airport after interrupting a Spanish holiday - put it: "My board haven't told me the fee but I gather it's a world record. That's the second time this has happened."

Rob Andrew, whose hiring as director of the rugby wing of Sir John's Tyneside sporting empire kicked off the professional era 17 months ago, made a specific request for "no questions about the fee". His chairman, though, gave the game away, in a roundabout manner.

"We are in business," Sir John said, when asked if he was concerned about the implications of his latest cheque-book move. "This always comes up. It's like `Remember the first pounds 1m signing in soccer?'."

In putting his pen to a five-year contract yesterday, Tuigamala became rugby's first pounds 1m signing. The transfer fee between Wigan and Newcastle may be a mere pounds 500,000, a record in itself, but compensation and wages take the deal into seven figures. Thus, in 18 months, rugby union has achieved what it took professional football six years short of a century to bring about.

When Brian Clough signed Trevor Francis for Nottingham Forest in 1979 he insisted the fee should be pounds 1 short of pounds 1m because, he told Jim Smith, the selling manager, he did not want the player "to become big headed". With VAT and Francis's five per cent cut, however, the deal came to pounds 1.1m.

Finding himself in the shoes of English football's Old Big 'Ead yesterday, Andrew was obliged to field the obligatory big money signing question about his - or, rather his club's - investment being a gamble.

"I certainly don't see it as a gamble," he said. "The marketplace started in September 1995 and people have to make commercial decisions."

"This shows our commitment to the sport," Sir John interjected, getting in his retaliation in advance of "mercenary" accusations. "In this season alone we've probably invested more in rugby in the North-east than the RFU has in the sport in a century."

Tuigamala then got in his two penn'orth (or pounds 1m, perhaps), anticipating the "challenge" of "spreading the rugby gospel on this side of the country". That mission starts with Newcastle's Courage League home match against Wakefield on 8 March.

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