David Flatman: Plenty of takers when the new money comes flooding in

From The Front Row
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The Independent Online

I am not normally one to brag, but I do have a claim to fame. In 2000, when I gained my first cap, I was the lowest-paid England international in professional history. Admittedly, the game had not been professional for very long by then, but I still regard this as a decent conversation starter.

Yes, I was playing against AJ Venter, Joost van der Westhuizen and lots of other superheroes of the modern game, but I was also only earning a hundred quid a week at the same time. You see, it was never about the money.

Well, I say that, and it is true. At least to a point. Actually I could have done with a bit more on that trip: my father did send me off with some spending money but still, I was nervous that I would find myself in a round with some heavy hitters and my silly little Solo card would be rejected at the bar.

I need not have worried, because as soon as Jason Leonard saw me reaching into my pocket he stopped me in my tracks. ''You ain't paying, son,'' he said. ''You're drinking with me tonight''. As I said, they were heroes in those days.

In truth, I never cared if a mate of mine was motivated by cash; I always took the view that, as long as he was up for the scrap and always put his body on the line for the team, I did not care why he did it. In fact it was none of my business. But money was important, and it still is. And now that BT have gone large, there is going to be an awful lot more cash knocking around.

An interesting question is where this cash might end up. I think the boring but inevitable truth is that much of it will go towards plugging the big holes in the pockets of the men funding our clubs. Not terribly exciting, I grant you, but these chaps have done quite enough to warrant a few minutes in the black.

On this subject, it is worth remembering that while Aviva Premiership rugby is certainly very shiny and advanced and innovative as a product, the majority of clubs are losing lots of money every year, and this makes our game seem a little unsustainable.

At the risk of generalising, if somebody has been sufficiently successful that he or she can afford to thump millions of pounds into a sports club, then we might assume that he or she is ambitious enough to want this venture to work in financial terms. So, they won't keep losing money forever.

But the BT venture is a whopping great deal, meaning there will likely be a good amount of change left over. People will demand that some of this reaches the grass-roots game, and rightly so.

Every big club have a community department and there is a risk, I think, that these are viewed as a sideline to the real business of first-team rugby. In fact, this is not just a fundamental misconception but misses a trick in pure business terms. You see, what every club want is home-grown talent. This way they get the heart and soul of the player, the natural affection of the supporters, and they do not have to buy him in from elsewhere at an increased cost. Academies, community departments and local clubs nurture and deliver talent to professional clubs, while those who do not make the cut drift back, hopefully, into the local game with all that experience. So investment in these initiatives is vital.

I expect the players' union will be balloting hard to get more cash for players, and rightly so; they do an extremely tough job. But the balance between keeping our players grounded and in love with the game and paying them enough to ensure rugby remains a worthwhile career choice for intelligent men who could often achieve elsewhere is a delicate one.

I do not suppose there will ever be another England international as poor as I was, but that is probably a good thing. All of this new-found wealth makes me, a former player, hugely bitter and resentful, but I think that is my right.

Wasn't like that in my day.