Taking a professional attitude

Tony Underwood looks at how the goalposts are rapidly being moved in the rugby union code
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The Independent Online
Undoubtedly the most common question I am asked after "What is it like playing with your brother?" is "When do you think the game is going to turn professional?"

Before the events of the past week or two, my response would have tended towards the latter part of my playing career (I am 26 now), but the actions of Rupert Murdoch point towards more rapid developments.

Although targeted at our cousins in the 13-man code, Murdoch's investment has clear ramifications, and none more so than in the Antipodes. Therein lies the problem for the International Rugby Board for, as a collective body, it has to represent the best interests of a diverse constitution, and undoubtedly certain members feel under greater threat than others. A lack of purposeful response by the IRB has led to the need for it to act on its own. Hence Leo Williams has come out to state that the Australian RFU no longer sees the game of rugby union as amateur.

A hasty response, some might feel, but only when you view it as a direct response to Murdoch's actions alone. Clearly there is more history to it, and this latest move is just the flake on the top of your ice-cream cornet, accelerating the onset of the inevitable.

In England, these pressures are only felt to a lesser extent, and so the RFU is able to stand its ground in the knowledge that the likelihood of any major defection from the England side is very slim. The RFU may deny this, and indeed feel that its judgement is based on a higher ground, but would it continue to do so if it was under the same pressures as the Australian and New Zealand unions?

No player is bigger than the game, but the game would not be the same without the Ubogus, Rodbers, Carlings and Guscotts to satisfy not just the punters, but also the sponsors.

The RFU has done a great deal to help improve the structure of the domestic game, and the advent of the Courage League has raised the skill levels of all involved to the benefit of the national side. In the same year as its introduction, the first World Cup final was being fought out in New Zealand. All this has happened in the last eight years, the consequences of which are twofold - money and commitment.

Sponsors recognise rugby as a premier opportunity to increase their exposure relatively cheaply in a sport rapidly finding its place in the living- rooms of the masses. The players, meanwhile, have the chance to play on a bigger stage against the best in the world in the best stadiums in the world, with the title of world champions as the reward.

All this requires a whole new level of commitment. Not just for the player in terms of fitness, diet, lifestyle and time, but also to their employers, wives, partners and parents to accommodate us even more.

In the run-up to the World Cup, my employers have kindly agreed to let me work half days so that I can devote the next five weeks to preparing myself for this chance of a lifetime. At the moment, it seems that the only beneficiary is my dog, who gets a lot more exercise than she used to.

More money in the game and increased commitment from the players means players are successful, which implies bringing still more money into the game. There is an obvious line missing to complete the loop. Does that mean I want to turn professional?

As things stand, I would not wish to sign a contract with anyone to play the game and be tied to their desires, but only to the extent that rugby union in England would, at present, not be able to support me; not just through my playing career, but also thereafter.

To that end, the only contract I stand by is the one I have signed to Crosby Securities, my employers, whose wishes I abide by. Should things change, however, I would give it serious thought.

But what about the consequences for the game? Too late. If someone had had the foresight, they would have looked at this issue before introducing plans for the World Cup a decade ago.

The goalposts have moved, and today amateurism is being flouted throughout the world. The IRB should not be looking at how to maintain an amateur game, but how to usher in this new phase, so that some semblance of control is kept over our sport, and soon.