Wood sees panic over new rugby league set-up

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The Independent Online

The tumult in rugby union caused by rugby league's acceptance of Rupert Murdoch's millions produced open conflict yesterday when the Australian Rugby Football Union and the New Zealand RFU called for union to turn professional, and immediately ran into the inevitable and implacable opposition of the Rugby Football Union in England.

"An element of panic has crept in," Dudley Wood, the RFU secretary, said in response to the frenzied activity taking place in Sydney and Auckland. Yesterday Leo Williams, chairman of the ARFU and a director of Rugby World Cup, endorsed Wednesday's move by Queensland and New South Wales to declare amateurism outmoded.

And also yesterday Richie Guy, recently installed as the NZRFU's chairman, said that an approach would be made to the International Board to persuade it to make the change. Rob Fisher, the NZRFU deputy chairman and IB delegate, will be in Britain within a month to argue the case.

The IB already has a special meeting on amateurism set for Paris in August but the Antipodeans regard that as too long to wait, so will have to press for a meeting of the board's emergency committee to put in place a new dispensation before the World Cup, now less than seven weeks away. Keith Rowlands, the IB secretary, has been unavailable for comment for the past two days.

"It's our idea, our attitude, to convince the IB that the game should go professional," Guy said. "We want liberalism. We want to see professionalism introduced. It's been our attitude for a long time that we would like the game to go professional. We are talking about players getting paid to play."

Even if this is half-a-dozen ways of saying the same thing, it is a seminal statement. Guy's compatriots were already in a flap after the launch of the Auckland Warriors franchise into Australian rugby league's Winfield Cup, and the announcement of the Super League by Murdoch's News Ltd has turned this into alarm and despondency.

The same is true of Australia, where players - Jason Little, Rod McCall and Phil Kearns - and the Wallabies' coach, Bob Dwyer, yesterday endorsed the ARFU's overt abandonment of the amateur principles which still purportedly govern the global game.

Williams could not resist a sideswipe against the home countries, which are regarded Down Under as downright hypocritical. "It is clear that those associated with the game around the world have been for some time receiving remuneration for their activities in various ways," he said.

"Paradoxically, the unions which have benefited most from the intrusion of commercialism are the group that describe themselves as the home unions. Some of these unions are at the forefront of the opposition to any change or relaxation in the so-called amateurism rules. Some people in the very same unions are guilty of honouring the amateurism rules more in the breach than in the observance."

No prizes for guessing that Williams had in mind the RFU in particular, and Twickenham is already resolved to resist. "The whole thing is very, very worrying; that must be said," Wood said yesterday.

"But when these things happen, to react so swiftly as they have done, without measured thought about the future of their game, is a dreadful mistake. If Australia and New Zealand are saying they feel they have to go professional, that's an IB matter and the first principle of the IB is that it is an amateur game."

Thus the Australians and English could not be more diametrically opposed. Even the England players, who have been in conflict with their union about the pace of change, have consistently rejected being contracted. "If you say to the England players `do you want to be a contracted, full-time professional rugby player?' I promise you the answer is no," Wood said. "I saw the Rupert Murdoch announcement as the opportunity for us to distance ourselves from the professional sport and remain a distinctive sport, based on whatever degree of amateurism we can preserve but certainly as a recreational sport. The worst scenario for me is to take them on and try to compete with them.

"The problem is - and this is a wonderful example - if you are a professional sport you can be bought and sold, and they have just been bought. They are in the hands effectively of one man."

Last night's action, page 34