Unity on the line for rugby union

The amateur tradition of the game is under threat as money and the marketplace lure players with promises of plusher pastures. Under pressure to modernise, the International Rugby Football Board meets in Paris this weekend to discuss the future and how it can shape it. David Llewellyn reports
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Rugby union's world governing body can either swim with the tide or be washed up on a barren shore this weekend.

The International Rugby Football Board are meeting in Paris to put to rest once and for all the thorny matter of amateurism. The 20 delegates gathered in total secrecy yesterday - even the agenda remained hidden, and hotel staff members were asked to keep reporters away - but by Sunday they should have reached a conclusion which will either settle the game on a new course into the next century or condemn it to anarchy.

Movement since the World Cup has been swift with the advent of Rupert Murdoch's pounds 360m television deal with the southern hemisphere unions and Kerry Packer's projected World Rugby Corporation, which prompted individual unions to agree deals and sign contracts with their leading players.

No one is yet leaping out of the closet of professionalism and admitting: "It's pay for play", but pressure will be put on the Board by the southern hemisphere unions - South Africa, New Zealand and Australia - and also possibly by the likes of Italy and France, for just that to happen.

The home unions - England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland - will oppose any such move strongly. Their resistance stems partially from a reluctance to go for out-and-out professionalism before they know what they are letting themselves in for, and partly from a fear of losing all control over the game and handing it over to the money men - the sponsors and television companies. For that reason the unions want to administer all earnings through trust funds.

Additionally, total professionalism would turn rugby into a high-risk career with short-term prospects for the bulk of players and the threat of injury and a premature end for some unfortunates. In England, the Rugby Football Union want to encourage players to pursue a career outside the game and where possible still regard rugby as a leisure time activity that happens to reward them for the amount of time and effort they put into it.

But the Board must decide something and the choices seem to be fairly straightforward.

The game could - despite the opposition of the home unions - go fully "pay for play" professional.

Or a simple decision could be made to delete the word amateurism from the regulations, simultaneously approving contracts between individual players and their unions, as well as empowering the unions to give the go-ahead for similar contracts between players and their clubs. This - which seems the most likely option - would abolish the hypocrisy of the last few years when players have received rewards in kind if not in cash, for example the use of cars for club players, the provision of kit, including expensive, top of the range boots etc, as well as generous expenses, without losing the amateur ethos, which has always been regarded as the life force of the game at club level.

It could go open, which would leave the choice of earning from the game essentially up to the individual players. But this would involve an underlying acceptance that the professionals would be on a pay-for-play scheme.

Or the Board could just fudge the issue by maintaining the status quo, in which case the game would be torn apart and they would be guilty of abdicating responsibility as well as leaving the game out of control.

Tony Hallett, the newly installed secretary of the RFU, is in no doubt about the consequences and he warns: "If the Board goes against the trend, then each country would have to answer for itself. The only choice after that is to break away and go play your own game, whether it is a professional game or an unprofessional game."

But Hallett expresses the hope that sanity will prevail. "I do hope the Board grasps the nettle fully and firmly and makes a decision. They must take the lead and give us all a game that we can now administer, without having the most uneven playing field that we have ever seen."

Hallett has a clear view of what he wants. "We all should agree that the game should be fully deregulated and the only thing I would stop short of is a match fee - pay for play. But otherwise it would be quite easy to administer the game under those circumstances."

Whatever decision is announced on Sunday, nothing will be done straight away. The members take their thoughts from Paris to Tokyo and the IRFB interim meeting at the end of September. There it will be turned into a substantive motion to be put before the Board's annual meeting in January next year.

Until then whatever agreements players and unions have reached will come under the present regulations. The money will be paid over but to amateurs for work which does not arise directly from the game, which is to say promotional and advertising work as well coaching clinics and the like, such as England carry out through their Run With The Ball scheme.

Until January players will be amateurs, after that the veil of hypocrisy will be lifted, by whatever means, and rugby union will be able finally to enter its new era.