So farewell, then, the amateur game

END OF AN ERA: The RFU's moratorium on professionalism expires today. Steve Bale, Rugby Union Correspondent, considers the implications of the new order while Dai Llewellyn (below) looks at the impact of the change on leading clubs
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The Independent Online
At the Cafe Royal, London today, English club rugby union will symbolically pass into the professional age when the end of the Rugby Football Union's moratorium begins the scramble for the players and the millions of pounds supposedly needed to make a success of the new dispensation.

That Richmond have chosen a venue more readily recognised in sport for its boxing connection for their announcement - perm two or three from Ben Clarke, Scott Quinnell, Mike Catt, Abdel Benazzi, Laurent Cabannes and a host of others - is not the least of the ironies of the impossibly turbulent situation. That it is Richmond, most recently of the Third Division, who are making it is another.

So all of a sudden money, with which rugby union has had an equivocal relationship ever since it started coining the stuff in sponsorships while denying the players these fruits of their labours, talks. Those clubs who do not have enough - quite possibly including some of the giants of the game - are about to find that out the hard way. For an innately conservative sport, this is unalloyed Thatcherism.

Market forces also explain why England's First Division clubs have been pushing so hard in their infinitely tedious dispute with the RFU. Richmond have now made it to the Second Division, which is also where well-heeled Saracens and Newcastle will reside next season, always presuming Saracens really are relegated.

Many First Division clubs - even those of the distinction of Bath and Leicester, who contested but gained only a modest return from the pounds 1.2m Pilkington Cup final - do not have the access to corporate finance of their hitherto lesser brethren and therefore, probably commencing with Clarke today, are ripe for cherry-picking. Consequently, they are in effect asking the RFU, which will be reluctant to be emollient as long as Cliff Brittle heads its negotiators, to make available the resources to prevent this happening.

Whatever transpires, it is an uncomfortable and unchangeable fact that clubs' status and success will no longer rest solely on the many fine but abstract qualities that have, to take the most prominent example, carried Bath to 10 cup wins and five league titles in little more than a decade.

This is not to say loyalty, esprit de corps, reserves of determination, courage, commitment and all the rest of the cliches will count for nothing. On the contrary, many of us who have admiringly watched Bath during these years of plenty will believe the theory of their imminent demise only when it takes place - which may well be never.

But it is unavoidable that there are new "values" that will - already do - inform players' judgements of where to play. In these professional times that boils down to "security", a euphemism for responding to the highest bidder. In Gareth Llewellyn's case this is Harlequins, in brother Glyn's Wasps; and less affluent Neath are the luckless losers.

From today we should forget the familiar trumpery about changing clubs for "a new challenge", another euphemism hung over from the days when rugby league clubs were wont to sign up penurious Welshmen; these lads are moving for the money, pure and simple.

And who can blame them? It may be a matter of profound regret that rugby union has lost both its purity and its soul - though how pure or soulful it has lately been is a matter of debate - but it has gained something else, an unlikely and certainly unusual degree of honesty. Anyway, when a professional commitment is demanded of its participants it is only fair that they earn a professional reward.

This was recognised long ago, however surreptitiously, in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, which may explain how contrastingly easy the transition has been there. Believe it or not, it was recognised, too, by the RFU this very season when they granted contracts to members of the England squad.

But, prudent though the club moratorium may have been, the England contracts explicitly broke the "seamless" principle - the so-called open game applying to all and to be interpreted by each and every club as they deem appropriate - on which the union has hung its approach to professionalism.

So for Brittle to complain, as he has, that the major clubs' demand for the control of and finance from their own competitions would entail an unravelling of this seamlessness is both contradictory and unsustainable. In the great meritocracy of the Courage Clubs' Championship, it will remain open to the lowest in the land by merit to join the greatest.

The difference is that merit - or put another way, playing results - can henceforth be acquired through cash-in-hand rather than any intrinsic quality, and it is undeniable that many in English rugby who will forever be utterly untouched by professionalism cannot stand the thought that anyone might be paid for anything. If nothing else, this year's two RFU special general meetings in Birmingham showed the depth of this feeling.

The problem for the RFU is that, seamless or otherwise, professionalism divides the game into two, professional and amateur, or three if you add a semi-professional stratum, though the point is that players and clubs are perfectly capable of moving between the three whether or not they are officially recognised.

Doubtless the de facto divide creates many problems for administrators, but the most urgent one has been, and still is, how professionalism is to be financed and managed, and this is where the RFU under Brittle has gone so badly awry - in being overconcerned with its duty of care for the 2,000 clubs and organisations who make up the union when it was only the top few dozen for whom anything in practice had changed.

"The game of rugby football is not about a few individuals or a few individual clubs at the top end of the game," Brittle said in a television interview. Quite right too, but alas for Cliff, the professional game of rugby football is about precisely that.

Nor, moreover, is there the slightest threat in all this to those who have enjoyed their coarse rugby down the years. The professionalism that Richmond herald today represents the future, however imperfect. The idea that the junior clubs are natural bedfellows with Richmond is the past.

So let us prepare ourselves for a frenzy of activity, of more clubs selling themselves (selling out?) to business backers and a veritable paroxysm of transfer activity - though there has been nothing to stop any of these during the eight months of the moratorium. Richmond, indeed, have already signed Cardiff's Adrian Davies and Andy Moore.

Only last Thursday Wasps were unveiling a Cardiff player of more venerable vintage, Mike Griffiths. But this announcement was a timely demonstration that the nascent professionalism of players - Griffiths will be on a handsome pounds 210,000 over three years - is not necessarily matched by the professionalism of the administration.

How curious that in this respect rugby union can still have so much to learn from its former self, from the old volunteers who would devote themselves unstintingly in a designedly unpaid cause. Wasps, on the other hand, hired a company ("Specialists in Press and Public Relations") to handle the news of Griffiths.

So profound was Complete Golf & Leisure's knowledge of the game that it managed to spell Griffiths' name wrong in each of four mentions and was three years too optimistic in his age. Damian Hopley, who has been with the club rather longer, became Damien.

If this is professionalism give me amateurism, because John Gasson, the stalwart but honorary specialist who expertly handled Wasps' press and public relations for more years than he would care to remember, would never have got it wrong. "The time has come for a new era in rugby football," Richmond's invitation to the Cafe Royal portentously reads. On and off the field, I only hope.