RUGBY UNION:New Zealand call for open professionalism

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The Independent Online
The fragile thread by which rugby union's amateurism nowadays hangs was almost severed yesterday, when the New Zealand RU announced its intention to vote for full-blown professionalism when the International Board meets in March in Bristol.

The New Zealand proposition is unlikely to receive the required three-quarters majority at the agm, even if Australia and South Africa fall in behind it. But it is further pressure for more sweeping change than the loosening of the amateur regulations currently being investigated.

And as an indication of the way things are inexorably going, this intervention is devastating. Even though the home unions will line up among the opposition, the feeling now is that the end of amateurism is a question of when, not if. "There is a tremendous amount more work to be done, but the principle is that we believe the situation at the moment is quite farcical," Eddie Tonks, NZRU and former IB chairman, said in Wellington.

Pragmatism has as much to do with it as principle for the New Zealanders, caused by the creation of the Auckland Warriors rugby league team, who enter the big-money Sydney competition this year.

The NZRU is, quite reasonably, alarmed that the lure of league will prove too much for many more players if New Zealand rugby union cannot offer something comparable. In any case, the IB regulations have proved to be quite unenforcable internationally.

"Whatever people may feel about rugby going professional, we are already so far down the road that we have no choice but to advocate repealing the amateur regulations," Tim Gresson, the NZRU amateurism committee chairman, said. "The current situation is completely lacking in credibility."

Dudley Wood, the Rugby Football Union secretary and leading proponent of amateurism, gleefully responded by pointing out that the New Zealanders were constitutionally unable - for now - to institute the change they desire. "I believe most countries wouldnot be in favour of such a drastic step," he said.

"England certainly believe the game should remain amateur. In any case, New Zealand are already out of time. The board by-laws insist that any changes relating to amateurism must be proposed by the previous September. A special general meeting could be called, but it's hard to see that being effected in the near future." Wood retires in July.

Of more immediate concern is Saturday's England-France match, and Will Carling limped out of yesterday's training at Roehampton after taking a bang on the knee. This is not expected to threaten the England captain's participation; nor are yesterday's other casualties - Leonard, Moore and Richards - in doubt. Moreover, Martin Johnson's persistent hamstring trouble was so improved that he took a full part.

Yesterday's bad news for England's relegation-threatened Harlequins (Carling, Leonard and Moore) and Saints (Bayfield and Rodber) is that they will all be expected to miss Quins' and Northampton's vital league games on 11 February, a week before England play Wales.

There was also a scare for Gavin Hastings, who will break the Scottish record with his 53rd cap against Ireland on Saturday, provided he recovers from the back spasm that curtailed his involvement in yesterday's session at Murrayfield.

The captain will have to prove his fitness on Wednesday, otherwise Rowan Shepherd will win his first cap. Paul Burnell is on stand-by at prop for Peter Wright, who did not train because of a calf strain.

Ireland have a problem, too, with their outstanding young hooker, Keith Wood. Like Hastings, he has been given until Wednesday after a back injury meant his absence from yesterday's second part of the Irish squad weekend in Dublin. A radically revamped team show six changes of personnel and one of position from the XV conclusively beaten by England.

IRELAND (v Scotland, Murrayfield, 4 February): J Staples (Harlequins); S Geoghegan (Bath), B Mullin (Blackrock College), P Danaher (Garryowen), J Bell (Ballymena); P Burke, M Bradley (Constitution, capt); N Popplewell (Wasps), K Wood (Garryowen), P Clohessy (Young Munster), P Johns (Dungannon), G Fulcher (Constitution), A Foley (Shannon), B Cronin (Garryowen), D McBride (Malone). Replacements: N Woods (Blackrock College), E Elwood (Lansdowne), N Hogan (Terenure College), G Halpin (London Irish), T Kingston (Dolphin), M Galwey (Shannon).

Ireland A and Under-21 teams, Sporting Digest, page 28

More rugby, page 29