Short-changed by small fortunes

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The Independent Online
THE silly season is in full swing. First Kerry Packer is talking telephone numbers for a game which, below international level, is ex-directory. Then the Rugby Football Union, in a knee-jerk panic following the Will Carling fiasco, are reputedly offering the players up to pounds 50,000 per man. Based on their performances in the World Cup, that is roughly the amount the England players should be paying the RFU to select them.

Packer probably cares as little for the good name of rugby union as he did for the future of cricket when he set up his infamous circus in the 1970s. His sole interest, like Rupert Murdoch's, is to maintain his influence in the mass media. When Lamarr Hunt tried his professional tennis circuit in the 1960s it was, like rugby now, a game chiefly run by men who were products of a bygone era when the game was not a mass entertainment but a leisure pursuit for the well-to-do. The game's administrators cannot say that they have not been warned.

There are countless examples of sports that have preceded them down the rocky path to professionalism and come to grief. Athletics is still falling through every trap-door in sight but the problems confronting rugby union could be far worse than those experienced by other sports.

Despite the bullish optimism of those who believe ordinary club players in National League One could make as much as pounds 25,000 per season, the fact is that the game, and certainly that played each week in Britain, cannot sustain professionalism below international level. For all the high-powered marketing, and despite impressive attendance figures at top matches, even most rugby league clubs were heading for bankruptcy before selling out to Murdoch. If, as seems highly likely, there is no money in rugby union other than at international level, the top priority (and in some cases the only priority) for leading players will be internationals.

This is what will distinguish rugby union from sports such as football , where remuneration for those representing their country is paltry compared with the sums paid by clubs to players. In football it is almost invariably club before country; in rugby union it would unquestionably be country before anything else.

In a very minor way we saw the chaotic consequences of this at the end of last season when England's World Cup squad were restricted in the number of league matches they could play during April. And, on the reasonable assumption that professionalism will not stop at the players, that it is only a matter of time before the manager's job becomes a salaried post, the pressures on the players to reduce their club commitments will become even more intense. The clubs will then become increasingly dependent on their governing bodies for survival. Herein lies another problem.

If top players are to earn the kind of money being mentioned, a high percentage of the revenue at present coming into the game from sponsorship will have to be diverted into the players' pool. This inevitably will bring sponsors of the game into conflict with the sponsors of the players.

There are signs of this in Scotland, where the longest and one of the most lucrative sponsorships in the game - by the Royal Bank of Scotland - is being eroded and jeopardised by the players' agreement with Famous Grouse. Save & Prosper, who have been loyal and generous supporters of the RFU since 1985, will certainly wish to review their position should England's players negotiate a similar deal for themselves.

These are not, of course, considerations that concern today's players. Naturally, they place self-interest above the wider and greater interests of the game, and only the most hidebound would wish to deny them the opportunity to profit from their efforts. The danger is, however, that in the haste to reach an accommodation with the players, the game itself will be held to ransom. There was evidence of that in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup when the South African players' ludicrously inflated idea of their own value put their provincial competition at risk.

On that occasion their demands were refused. But now Packer is threatening to reduce the National Lottery to a church raffle, expectations and egos are again soaring. It is about now that the RFU may be reflecting that if sacking Will Carling was their biggest mistake, their second was to reinstate him.