Watkins reveals the cost of open invitations

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Now here's a funny thing: we are in rugby union's brave (or craven, depending on your viewpoint) new world and yet it looks exactly the same. Money isn't everything and watching Newport play Aberavon was a reminder that most of those who aspire to oval-shaped opulence will find the truism all too true.

The simple fact that they had gone ahead with the game when Wales were playing South Africa in Johannesburg - and more importantly on ITV - spoke volumes not just for what was anticipated at Ellis Park but also for their diminished status, with not a current international between them.

In better times these two famous old clubs might have been among the elite considering how much, rather than whether, to pay their newly professionalised players. Not now. Aberavon have just made it back to the Heineken League's First Division, from whence they departed in 1994 and from which they may depart in 1996. Newport required a late run to keep them there in 1995.

Their 30-9 victory was a reasonable reflection of the gap between the two sides, though Aberavon have had such a turnover in personnel - the coaches and eight of Saturday's team being new arrivals - that it may be premature to judge them too harshly. Still, it is impossible to imagine either going so far as a championship challenge.

And if they remain down table, and therefore downbeat, the commercial realities are such that the best even their best players can expect is decent expenses, plus - perhaps - a bit on the side. Even this is restricted: Newport have taken the trouble to inquire of the Inland Revenue what it would regard as decent expenses and it seems pounds 90 a week is the maximum a Black and Amber may claim tax-free.

Do not be misled. Newport had an unenviable reputation during rugby union's recent shamateur days for attracting players with "inducements", as they were then euphemistically known. This was the cause of a well-publicised rift between Newport and Bath. As lately as last season, when the inducements of others had so overtaken theirs that half the squad had left, the club chairman more or less owned up.

As this was David Watkins, union and league luminary of the fading past, it was worth listening. "I hope we don't rush into being mercenaries again because it would be totally counter-productive," he said. "Newport have been foolhardy in the past because there has been no loyalty in the way they have attracted players."

Watkins could be excused for regarding the "open" dispensation with which the International Board blessed the new season as an open invitation for players to hawk their services in a decidedly mercenary way. But, whatever the new dispensation, Newport believe they have addressed the loyalty problem and the very presence at Rodney Parade of Gareth Rees, Canada's outside-half, endorses that belief.

Rees admits to having signed a form to join Saracens this season but - undeterred by the Revenue's limit - has stuck with Newport even though, as of last Friday, he is living 125 miles away at Eton College (handy for the M4), where he has a one-term appointment to teach modern history and coach the Under-14s, the age group of a promising new boy entitled Prince William.

Though Newport's coaches would prefer to play down his over-riding influence, Rees is the strategic and tactical linchpin around which everything turns. In the defeat of Aberavon he contributed 20 points, which included a drop goal after 45 seconds and one of the longest penalties (64 yards) ever seen at Rodney Parade.

But it was more the subtlety of his passing, the range of his options and the exceptional intelligence of all his rugby that lifted Newport from their mediocrity and past Aberavon. Tries by Mark Yendle and Marvin Williams, splendid as they were, were examples of what might have been, and the dropped pass which cost Newport a third try and with it a league bonus point was symptomatic of much of their play.

That said, it was the first time they had won the first fixture of a First Division season and with occasional luck as well as Rees's good judgement they restricted the Wizards to Mark Watts's goal-kicks. It also made Rees's journey from Berkshire worthwhile, as he and his team-mates qualified for a modest bonus.

At Newport it seems the going rate is pounds 40 for a win, pounds 60 for a second win in succession, pounds 80 for a third and a maximum pounds 100 each for a fourth and subsequently. At other clubs - Cardiff, Llanelli and Swansea, for instance - the rate is said to be higher and, of course, is on top of whatever the taxman will allow in decent expenses.

This, if we take Watkins's word for it, is where it will end, even in the brave/craven new world. "It's the biggest non-event in the 100-year history of rugby union football," he fulminated.

"It's not going to have much effect at all because if you don't have anything to spend then you can't spend anything."

To that extent, Newport will, perforce, remain amateur, sort of, until the Welsh First Division clubs acting in concert can find themselves a big-money backer - always supposing the Welsh Rugby Union will let them. "If a sponsor comes in and pays the First Division clubs pounds 10m, then we will have the money to pay players," Watkins said. "Until that day, you can forget it."

Newport: Tries Yendle, Williams; Conversion G Rees; Penalties G Rees 5; Drop goal G Rees. Aberavon: Penalties Watts 3.

Newport: M Yendle; R Rees, D Hughes, S Webley, P Hopkins; G Rees, J Hewlett; D Thomas (M Gork-Rogers, 71), A Peacock, S Duggan, N Jones (A Carter, 52), K Moseley, M Workman, R Goodey (capt), M Williams.

Aberavon: D Davies; B Grabham, G Williams, C Laity (N Stork, 45), S Hutchinson; M Watts, G John; R Price, L Gilby, D Austin, S Thomas, P Matthews (S Pearce, 72), B Shenton (capt), R Morris, C Kinsey.

Referee: C Thomas (Neath).