The hard world of showbiz beckons

Chris Rea foresees hard times in rugby union's brave new world
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FAREWELL to amateurism and adieu to the amateur - young, gifted and almost invariably broke.

Today the gentlemen playing the hooligans' game, very largely for fun, give way to the players for whom rugby will hereafter be a richly rewarding occupation. Best-manning on winter Saturdays will be out, along with Easter breaks in Gstaad, even though the players will now be able to afford them.

It will be a much less forgiving world. The full-back trembling under the high ball at Twickenham can expect far less sympathy should he drop it than in the days when his job as a medical houseman had denied him sleep for the previous 48 hours.

At pounds 40,000 per annum - the sum guaranteed by the promotional deal signed last Thursday - mistakes like that can be costly. If England's players felt the strain of a nation's expectations on them in the past, the burden now will be close to intolerable.

As much as the honourable company of old flatulants may mourn the demise of amateurism, those of us for whom national representation was an honour and a privilege, but who were made to suffer for our art, would have to own up to a sneaking envy for players today. We would have jumped at the chance of making something out of the game instead of having to sell the MG Midget or the Morris Minor to go on tour.

The question is, how much would you be prepared to pay to watch the top players? Almost any hardship was worth enduring to witness a Gerald Davies side- step or Barry John's ethereal running.

Not so long ago one relished the prospect of watching Guscott and Carling in tandem or Gary Armstrong's one-man exhibition of skill and guts. Alas, the fear of losing has so overtaken the joy of playing in this part of the rugby world that the game is producing fewer and fewer individuals capable of firing the imagination.

And while the duty to win remains paramount, the need to entertain will become increasingly important. Few businesses are more brutally competitive than entertainment, and the reality is that rugby union at all levels in the British Isles is dispiritingly dull.

Because of the ever-present threat from rival football codes, the union game in New Zealand and Australia has perforce become more spectator-friendly.

The All Blacks, very probably the best team in the World Cup and undeniably the most entertaining, did not just embrace the running game for the six weeks of the competition. That is the game they play every week for their clubs and provinces, the game that is being taught in colleges, schools and kindergartens. It is the game that we must adopt if rugby union is to make it as a professional sport.

Of infinitely greater concern is whether the financial incentives will significantly increase the numbers operating in that most lethal of all minorities, the psychopathic tendency. Those lunatic few inhabiting the game's underworld without scruples, who would cheerfully sell their grannies into slavery, now have a new charter for chicanery.

In no other game I can think of does play continue when the ball is hidden from view. Certainly not in rugby league or American football, where the ball is never out of the referee's sight. But in union the rucks, maul, and scrum provide a safe haven for evil- doers whose fibre is too weak to withstand the smallest temptation, let alone one involving substantial remuneration.

Rugby union will quickly discover that there is more to the change of status than the mere deletion of a word from the law-book. The change will be slow and painful. For the players, however, the future looks bright, although there may be times when they will regret surrendering the amateur's most prized possession - freedom of choice.

Not that it always went according to plan. Gordon Macdonald, the erstwhile London Scottish full-back, summoned by Scotland to Argentina in 1969 as a replacement on what was a bloody and brutal tour, arrived in Buenos Aires without his boots. "I would never have come," he protested to an apoplectic management, "if I'd known I'd be asked to play."