Super League threat brings new perspective

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Steve Bale finds rugby union relatively unruffled by the threat of league recruitment financed by Murdoch money

It is tempting for rugby union to sit back smugly while - so it may hope - rugby league gradually tears itself asunder. But wiser counsels within the older code appreciate that Rupert Murdoch's summertime Super League is potentially a serious threat to union globally if only because of the persuasiveness of its recruiting power. Money, for however long it may be available anyway, talks.

Potentially, but not definitely. Rugby union may worry about the apparently inevitable drain of players but, in this country at least, Murdoch's evident need to foster new loyalties in the rugby league areas - let alone in other areas which have already tried and failed - leaves those in the home unions remarkably relaxed about the tribulations Murdoch may cause.

Yesterday, for instance, the Rugby Football Union specifically ruled out combating the Super League by contracting the England players as the Australians are doing. "The players are not interested in going off to join a small operation which contracts them to playing league," Dudley Wood, the RFU secretary, said.

England may think themselves insulated but in union more generally the powers-that-be need no reminding that the bigger the bucks the more frequent the defections, and there have never been bigger bucks than Murdoch's News Ltd has on offer. But however severe the loss of players to league, union's own market forces had already dictated that we were about to see the end of amateurism as we knew, and some still love, it.

This, so everyone assumes, would affect Wales more than any of the home unions, because of the prevailing economic conditions in the Principality, though it is scarcely exaggerating to suggest that in Australia and New Zealand the reaction has been close to hysteria as the rugby union authorities there try to prevent their assets, the players, from being stripped.

The Australian and New Zealand Rugby Football Unions have met in search of common defensive ground - and realised whatever they came up with would be a XXXX compared with the champagne Murdoch had on offer. "Rugby never intends to match the huge sums being offered to rugby league players," Greg Thomas, the Welshman who is the ARFU's spokesman, admitted.

On the other hand, Vernon Pugh, erstwhile chairman of the International Rugby Board and still chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, has now more or less heralded the explicit end of amateurism. So has Rob Fisher, the New Zealander who worked with Pugh on the IRB's recent discussion document on the future of amateurism. "The Super League hastens the move towards professionalism in rugby," Fisher said.

The IRB's special meeting on this subject in Paris in August suddenly has still more overriding importance than it already did. "The players won't struggle for options after the August meeting," Pugh assured them yesterday. "After that meeting a few players will be making a lot of money. We will see a fairly rapid movement in the next few years and my advice to players is to wait and see what comes of the meeting."

In its 8,000 words Pugh's amateurism report deigns to mention rugby league precisely twice but the agenda has changed in the couple of months since he, Fisher, Bernard Lapasset of France and Freddie McLeod of Scotland prepared it and the report can now be seen as directly relevant to the defence against the Super League.

On the other hand, no one is in any doubt about the short-term pressure, especially in Wales with the proposed re- establishment of a rugby league franchise in Cardiff, leading to a doomsday view from David Watkins, chairman of the Newport club.

"This represents the most serious threat ever to rugby union in Wales and the WRU is facing a most difficult time," he said. "Everyone has scoffed at previous attempts to establish a major rugby league club in Wales - myself included - but for the first time ever there will be real money behind the venture."

These are curious remarks. Watkins was a distinguished international in both codes and he certainly was not scoffing when the last Cardiff rugby league club was set up in 1981. Watkins was coach, factotum in fact, and his venture lasted three years before a post-Watkins, death-throe season in 1984-85 at Bridgend.

That piece of ancient history demonstrated two things: that the acquisition of rugby union players past their prime would be a waste of even Rupert Murdoch's money, and also that there is a limit to the number of ex-rugby union novices you can hope to incorporate into a decent rugby league side.

It is more likely, then, that they seek to bring the boyos home - those who want to come and those whose clubs are willing to let them. But many of the boyos are beginning to age and the previous Cardiff experience, when attendances at Ninian Park ended at no more than 600, indicates there is limited public tolerance of relative has-beens playing down-table rugby.

In any case, so far everyone - Mike Hall, Anthony Clement and Robert Jones, to name but three - who has been asked has expressed complete uninterest and even if that changed after the imminent World Cup, players of this calibre know full well that rugby union will soon be professional in all but name.

Or even in name. "All the unions are very keen at this stage to make sure it's not pay-for-play but as to whether that will change, that's something which will have to be discussed at the IRB in August," Thomas said.

Either way, it is a source of amusement to rugby union here that rugby league in England - which has for so long sought to pick the plums grown by rugby union - has reacted so precipitately to the obvious threat from the Australians to do the same to them. Plums? The biter bit.