RUGBY'S NEW WORLD: Gravy train in Euro tunnel

Union leaders gather for Paris summit with the fall of amateurism and the failure of a coup on the agenda; Chris Rea explains how England's players can cash in on a continental initiative
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The Independent Online
THE BATTLE for the soul and ultimately the control of rugby union moves into its next phase this week with the meeting in Paris of the International Board. As the tail-end charlies in the aftermath of the dogfight between Murdoch and Packer, they are likely to be as pitifully ineffectual as the UN in Bosnia.

Their first job will be to delete the word amateur from the game's lexicon. Had they discharged this duty several years ago, they might have averted the crisis now facing the game. The sight of those administrators most ardently committed to the amateur ethic racing to espouse professionalism has been almost as unedifying as that of the players scrambling for a place on the various gravy trains which have been queueing up in recent weeks to take them on board.

Whether or not the International Board do finally acknowledge the death of amateurism matters very little to anyone save the committee members themselves, another depressing reminder of the impotence of the game's governing body. The decision was made for them at that historic gathering at Ellis Park on the eve of the World Cup final when a triumphant Louis Luyt, the South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) president, broke the news of the southern hemisphere's pact with Rupert Murdoch.

The gruesome sideshow organised as a rival attraction by Kerry Packer induced yet more panic. It is hard to conceive of a more cock-eyed scheme than this one. It was a circus for clowns interested only in short-term personal gain and not the long-term good of rugby union. Hard as it may be for the lions of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and, in particular, England to accept, a circus without the dominant species of Springbok, Kiwi and Wallaby would have been even more meaningless than Packer's original plan.

Regrettably, a number of universally admired and respected players who should have known better chose to align themselves with this wretched venture more as a bargaining chip with their unions than anything else. Yet it must have been blindingly obvious to all but the most gullible that World Rugby Corporation had scarcely a shred of credibility. It is to the credit of the Rugby Football Union, although perhaps it portrayed their rampant insecurity, that they gave any credence whatsoever to WRC. Had they dismissed the scheme as half-baked lunacy they might have further inflamed what was already an extremely volatile situation. Players at this level of the game, all of them fiercely competitive souls, like nothing more than a challenge, but by publicly acknowledging the threat of the Packer operation the RFU kept the temperature at a tolerable level throughout this period of midsummer madness.

Now the RFU can afford to be magnanimous. It is they, not the players, who occupy the high ground on this occasion although they would never publicly admit it. Their representatives will go to Paris with a brief to open the door to professionalism but not to demolish the wall. The RFU, with the support of the other home unions, will say yes to a range of money-making ventures from which the players can benefit, but an unequivocal no to payment for playing, transfer fees and win bonuses.

They will go in the fond hope that a common policy can be agreed throughout the rugby world. But even if agreement is reached around the negotiating table in Paris, the likelihood of it being kept is remote. By their actions in recent years New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have shown a contemptuous disregard for strictly adhering to laws.

What is certain is that the scale of payments made to the players in those countries will be significantly higher than the anticipated earnings of their European counterparts. Even if the income of pounds 60,000 a man is true for members of the England squad it will be less than half the amount earned in the southern hemisphere. But then it is probably true to say that the quality of rugby played in the southern hemisphere is at least twice as high as it is here. The establishment of the Super 12 competition in conjunction with the tripartite series between the world's leading exponents South Africa, New Zealand and Australia can only raise standards still higher.

The most pressing problems to be addressed in Britain concern the creation of a competition which bridges the ever-widening gap between club rugby and the international game and the payment of players below international level. It will be one of the first tasks of the newly formed Five Nations' Committee which is holding its inaugural meeting in Cardiff this weekend, to devise a competition of sufficiently high quality to equip the players for the international arena.

Quite clearly the Courage leagues in England, despite their undoubted appeal in the domestic game, are no longer providing an adequate environment for the leading players to test themselves and each other. The same has even longer been true of the McEwan's leagues in Scotland and the Heineken leagues in Wales. Even the French club championship, once deemed to be the most brutally competitive in the world, has outgrown its usefulness.

A European competition of some sort is the likely solution, and one which the National Clubs' Association came out in support of yesterday. They would favour a club-based competition, but may encounter someresistance from those who want the competition structured around divisions, districts and provinces. A club competition would restrict the numbers competing from each country and would therefore be of benefit to an elite few clubs who would all too quickly poach the best players. The more unfashionable clubs such as Orrell, Sale and Saracens would rapidly disappear from the mainstream as their players departed with even greater alacrity to Bath, Leicester and Harlequins.

Much better, then, to consider a competition based on the divisional and provincial concept involving the cream of the crop culled from their clubs and played at the back end of the season when the weather favours and encourages the kind of fast, skilful game so gloriously demonstrated by the All Blacks in the World Cup. Murdoch, for one, would be delighted. He would have a top-class competition to put out on his sports channel for which he would be prepared to pay substantial sums of money and from which a fair whack could be diverted into the players' pockets.

Quite apart from making sense as a means of preparing our top players for the rigours of the international game, it also makes sound financial sense. The very notion that club rugby in Britain can sustain a professional game is preposterous. And anyone who believes it can has only to ask 90 per cent of the clubs at present participating in the Football League and to examine the books of the Rugby League before Murdoch's intervention. Rugby union would be bankrupt within five years.

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