With the game changing rapidly, the RFU gives the impression of striving less for perfection than of obstructionism and arrogance

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The Independent Online
Nearly all the changes that have been advocated in this column over the past decade either have happened or are about to happen. We have seen or shall shortly see: the payment of players; transferability at all levels between union and league; a European competition and Anglo- Welsh competition; shorter tours; and a rearrangement of the Five Nations' Championship to avoid the inclement weather of January and February.

I hoped to see Jonathan Davies play again at the National Stadium or Stradey Park. I wanted to see Begles at Bath, Toulouse at The Stoop. It looks as if my wishes will, in the next couple of years, be fulfilled. I feel vindicated but, somehow, not as happy as I think I ought to be. I believe there are three reasons for this.

One is common to most human experience, not just to rugby football. Happiness tends to be transitory and unexpected. What has been talked about and planned for over a long period tends to be something of a let-down when it finally happens.

I call it the after-the-exams feeling. Do you remember how you would promise yourself all kinds of treats, arrange numerous expeditions - after the exams? But, when that time came, they did not seem so exciting. Likewise with rugby.

The second reason lies in the commercialisation of the game. Just so, say the diehards. It was bound to happen: we told you so. In fact it was happening anyway. The silly jerseys, the sponsorship, the special hospitality rooms set aside for particular firms - all preceded the professionalisation of the game or, as I prefer to put it, the permitting of payment to players. The commercialisation has grown more shameless; that is all.

The third reason lies in the attitude of the Rugby Football Union, as the English Rugby Union rather conceitedly calls itself.

The position of Dudley Wood, who retired as the RFU's secretary at the end of last season, was straightforward. He was opposed both to payment for players and to various other recent developments. He was an honest man. It was fortunate that he retired when he did.

His successor, Tony Hallett, accepts the changes. He may even welcome them. But he goes on to say that: "We must get it right." Unfortunately, the RFU has so far given the impression less of striving for perfection than of obstruction and arrogance.

There is nothing new about its display of this last quality. For example, in the divisional competition (which, I am glad to see, is to go), it arbitrarily subordinated the interests of the divisions to those of the English national team. It laid down that only England-qualified players should be eligible for selection. This conspicuously weakened the strength of the London Division, which could have fielded numerous Scottish and Irish (though alas, few Welsh) internationals.

The RFU was about to apply much the same restrictive practices to the Courage First Division. But payment for players came about first. Clearly clubs throughout the League were going to obtain the best performers they could buy, irrespective of their national qualifications; just as Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United have been doing for most of this century.

The most recent example of the RFU's arrogance has been its proposal to shift the Five Nations' Championship to May. It looks as if the sensible solution - to arrange the competition in March and April - will be preferred. I do not know whether the RFU's refusal to allow English clubs to compete in Europe this season counts as arrogance or obstructionism. Probably both.

But here are some more examples of obstructionism. Once the game had gone professional, there was no case for a waiting period. This is not to say that a detailed registration scheme should not be introduced once the changeover has taken place.

However, there is no merit in making Rob Andrew, for instance, lead a kind of half-life with Newcastle. It is not fair to him, to the new players he has introduced, to the old players who do not know where their future lies, or (though my sympathy for sports entrepreneurs is limited) to Sir John Hall.

And where is the sense of telling John Gallagher that he must wait until September 1996 before turning out for an English club? He is 31. His story is both romantic and tragic. A south Londoner, disregarded in England - though he played once for London Irish - he became the best full-back in the world with New Zealand. He then disappeared in rugby league. Both his parents are Irish. Ireland should now pick him for the Five Nations - that would teach the RFU.

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