Mockery, morality and the new geography

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The Independent Online

If he said it once, he said it a hundred times. The Rugby Football Union had received no formal proposal, therefore he could not speculate on what might or might not happen, but Francis Baron, the chief executive, expects to be passed the hot potato sooner or later. A number of South Africans, with money, influence and a business plan, want to buy into the success story that is English rugby, raising legal and ethical issues.

If a consortium took over Wakefield and relocated to London, would that make a mockery of the club game or would it make sound commercial sense? A knee-jerk reaction would be to storm the offices of the RFU, but Baron is a businessman as well as an administrator, and if he was presented with a blueprint that would ultimately make the Premiership more attractive, opposing voices could find themselves in a minority. London is a special case. Wasps left Loftus Road, the football stadium in west London they used to share with Queen's Park Rangers, for High Wycombe; Saracens moved to Vicarage Road in Watford; and London Irish departed Sunbury for the Madejski Stadium in Reading. Because they all play second fiddle to football clubs, they are restricted to performing on Sundays. Harlequins are left in isolation at the Stoop, the only Premier-ship club operating in Greater London and on a Saturday.

If a team made up of top South Africans, complemented by players qualified for England, were to compete at Loftus Road - the nearest pub to the ground is called The Springbok - it would attract thousands of expats. Morally, would it be right for a Yorkshire club to be transplanted with a South African heart?

Although Baron refused to be drawn, Howard Thomas, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, was less reticent. "What's the difference,'' he asked, "between London Irish and London South Africa? This is the biggest issue facing the game.''

As it happens, there would be very little difference. The introduction of professionalism, and the fact that the Zurich Premiership is effectively a European league operating under European employment law, rewrote the history and geography of the game. London Irish may be watched predominantly by Irishmen working and living in London but the team, with only a handful of Ireland-qualified players, have a very strong South African accent. Anybody from the Commonwealth can work in Britain for two years and, as Thomas said, there is no restriction on the number of South Africans who can play here.

Johann Rupert, the tobacco magnate behind Dunhill's involvement in international golf, is set to be at the forefront of one of the consortiums looking to establish a rugby brand in London. "We already have overseas investors in our game and South Africans in our teams,'' Thomas said. "We can't go against the law. If Brian Kennedy [the owner of Sale] wanted to sell shares to Johann Rupert, who cares?''

In fact, Premier Rugby once put the block on an attempt by Worcester to buy Sale. If Wakefield are bought out, Thomas, grinning from ear to ear, announced that it was not his problem as the club are now in National League Two. If the team were infused with Springbok talent, the new owners would expect a swift promotion to the Premiership. Would this be such a radical departure from Ashley Levett, who bought Richmond and then withdrew his support when the losses mounted, or from Sir John Hall's initial investment at Newcastle or Cecil Duckworth's support of Worcester?

"Under the European Commission we are faced with new dynamics,'' Thomas said. "And you are seeing the results in cricket, football and now in rugby. I would not be too happy if Tonga took over Kingsholm or Fiji played at Welford Road, but you can't legislate against it.''

Any South African consortium looking at London will want a short cut to the Premiership, which would incense the likes of Orrell and Exeter, who have promotion dreams of their own, but such an enterprise would have been a more attractive proposition than watching Rotherham drown in the top pool.

The alternative for a new club would be to start at the bottom, a fate suffered by Richmond and London Scottish when they went into administration. Had the in-vestors in those two clubs been committed to the long haul they might now be enjoying some of the reflected glory of England's success in the World Cup. As it is, their demise makes London, particularly to South African eyes, look an even better proposition.

The problem for the author-ities is that they have no precedent. All they can say, ad nauseam, is that they will do "what is best for England rugby''. In an ideal geographic spread there would be a leading professional club playing in, say, Cornwall. "What is reasonable?'' said Thomas. "We wouldn't want a new outfit playing at London Welsh, because Harlequins would be just down the road.''

Loftus Road, however, would represent a more reasonable fit. Whether London's clubs would welcome new competition is another matter, although if it was a successful concern with a strong following Quins, for example, would see a benefit, not least in attendance figures, of playing home and away against such opposition.

Having fought for so long for promotion and relegation, National League One clubs would be against any outsider entering the Premiership, but their influence is limited.

If the boot was on the other foot, would South Africa or New Zealand permit a team based around English players to compete in the Super 12? Probably not. Meanwhile, any official approach to the RFU will have to be considered by the management board at Twickenham. A change of ownership needs the consent of the union, and on one issue Baron is clear - that will take months rather than days.

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