Wales to press for players' pay deal

rugby union
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Wales, exasperated at the drain of their precious players to rugby league, will propose to the International Rugby Board at its meeting in Bristol next week that rugby union's amateurism be redefined to apply solely to taking the field to play the game.

Leaders of the game admit that this would be the effect of the Welsh proposal, which would entail far more generous compensatory payments to those who lose out financially through playing rugby - the very issue that caused the league breakaway a century ago - and virtual carte blanche in the field of endorsements and advertising.

As one senior administrator admitted yesterday: "The Welsh Rugby Union wishes to make the opportunities for players wide enough to say that you can benefit from just about everything other than playing the game. It is opening a window of opportunity."

Whether other, more conservative unions will go along with plans that would leave international rugby professional in all but name is another matter and, as they prepare for prospectively one of the most momentous meetings in the game's history, officials are seriously concerned at the threat of a widening of the gap between the rich and poor of the rugby world.

The message yesterday was that the game was 95 per cent amateur, that the overwhelming majority of the 50-plus unions who attended the board's autumn meeting in Vancouver had supported the retention of amateurism, and that even the Australian Rugby Union, supposedly leaders in the professionalisation field, had "stated their wish to retain an amateur ethos within the game".

Some hope. The lie was given to this when it was made clear that the Australians and New Zealanders intended to push hard at next week's meeting to bring about fundamental change. "Can someone tell me what they are trying to protect?" Dick McGruther, president of the Queensland RU, demanded in Brisbane yesterday. "They say it is an ethos and a culture, but what is it? We are splitting hairs. Players have been getting paid for some time."

Everyone on the IRB admits that even the looser code of amateurism adopted in recent years is being widely flouted - the very reason the board's working party, under its chairman, Vernon Pugh, has been investigating the matter.

However, its report to the AGM is not the weighty tome that had been expected and Pugh is concerned that when his chairmanship ends next week any new regulations will be as confused and unenforcable as the old ones. "In any society it is important that you have laws that are clear, concise and enforceable," an official said. "If laws are not observed, they are not laws."

Administrators, beginning a few weeks ago with Dudley Wood, the Rugby Football Union secretary, have been advising against exaggerated expectations of the Bristol meeting. But what is clear is that the Australasians and others will face considerable opposition from around the world.

Indeed the Australian RU's plan for £40,000-a-year contracts for its leading players has yet to be signed and the ARU has been warned that even then its scheme will have to go before the 20-member IRB council and the full panoply of the board itself, now representing 66 unions.

"There is a very strong feeling worldwide that the game remain amateur," a senior figure said. "We do have to recognise we have an enormous problem in that we have a few major unions at the top and too many under-developed unions at the bottom. The game is desperately under-funded and an under- funded game could only have a very small, wafer-thin professional core."

Five Nations focus, page 38