Rugby Union: Union giving Bluey a chance

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The Independent Online
GREAT news for Bluey Muldoon, although it will be a while yet before he receives it.

Bluey lives, and very occasionally works, in Wombatville, a tiny outpost deep in the heart of the Australian bush. Until a month ago he never even knew of the existence of rugby union, his only relaxation being the Young Doctors and rugby league.

Then, during a commercial break, Bluey saw Michael Lynagh sucking from a can of the amber nectar and instantly knew that he would happily give a Castlemaine XXXX for the chance to play the XV-a-side game.

But how to do it? He had been on the Wombats' payroll since he was 12 and three-quarters, and, besides, he was a Fosters' man.

Little did he know it, but the International Board, the game's ruling body, had somehow got to hear of Bluey's plight and had decided in their infinite wisdom and compassion to end his torment.

In Edinburgh last week they framed a law whereby professional players who inhabited northern wastelands like Wombatville and Wigan, and who had been denied access to the union game, could play it two years after receipt of their final payment from the professional code.

It is no surprise to learn that the initiative for such a change has come from Australia. With an outback larger than anyone else's, they will undoubtedly be the chief beneficiaries of it.

But the decision to make further relaxations in the amateur regulations was by no means unanimous, and a snowball has a better chance of survival in Hades than Ellery Hanley has of playing rugby union for England.

In these litigious times, however, a lawyer of international repute is almost as important as a world-class player. No one can be completely insulated against the threat of legal action and nothing is quite what it purports to be.

Restraint of trade, for example, is less to do with commerce than with freedom of choice, and rugby union, uneasily wed to big business, at present finds itself under siege from players wishing to exercise that freedom.

The case of the Australian Tony Melrose, seeking reinstatement to the union game after his defection to league, stopped just short of the supreme court at which point the Australian Rugby Union were advised to back down. Game, set and match to Melrose. Stuart Evans is attempting to mount a similar action against the Welsh Rugby Union, and is hoping for an equally successful outcome.

These are testing times for the International Board who, nevertheless, have some big battalions of their own. Dennis Easby, himself a lawyer, made a slick and concise presentation of the board's case on Friday, and in the process helped erase the memory of their public relations debacle at Bristol earlier in the season.

The press conference was not without its humour, although not for the Scottish scribe who pressed one of the board members for a personal view of the World Sevens at Murrayfield. 'I enjoyed them very much indeed,' Albert Agar replied, 'but then I am an Englishman.'

Agar was too much of an English gentleman to refer to the increasing boorishness of the Scottish crowd which, at times last weekend, went far beyond the good-natured banter associated with events like the Hong Kong and the Middlesex sevens.

Such discourteous behaviour may as yet be confined to a small minority who are ignorant of and indifferent to the traditions of the game. But the Scottish Rugby Union will ignore this worrying trend at their peril.

The amendments to the experimental laws at the rucks and mauls, and at the line-out, are, for the most part, sensible and will be generally welcomed by supporters and opponents alike.

We may see less kicking and infringing, and more running and handling as a result, but, by restricting the number of countries exempt from qualifying for the World Cup tournaments beyond 1995 to a maximum of four, the board have effectively signed the death warrant of the British Lions.

Ronnie Dawson, a powerful advocate of the Lions concept, implied as much on Friday, and he is right to be concerned. As the qualifying standards in the World Cup get higher and the matches significantly harder, so national interests will take precedence over any commitment to the Lions. Sad, but inevitable, and the Board's decision has merely hastened the end.

It is regrettable that, in an otherwise excellent job on the laws, the board did not address itself to the deterioration in the standards of refereeing at international matches. This season the Five Nations' Championship produced some of the worst refereeing I can ever recall seeing in the tournament, but instead of appointing referees on merit, the board are remaining loyal to the manifestly inadequate rota system.

That apart, it was a good week for the board and, of course, for Bluey Muldoon.

(Photograph omitted)