Wood's word to the wise

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The Independent Online
Six days ago a Commons committee made the most far-reaching recommendations ever about future relations between rugby union and league.

The National Heritage Committee recommended that until the regulations governing union were amended to remove the "discrimination" against league, no further money from the Sports Council or any other body which distributed public funds (whether at national or local level) should go to the Rugby Football Union or any of its member clubs.

The committee also recommended that no further distribution of National Lottery proceeds should be made to union clubs until league was treated equally with all other sports in union regulations.

In addition, the committee established conclusively from the Inland Revenue, not that payments in cash were being made surreptitiously to union players but rather that benefits they now received - such as housing and cars - represented income and were accordingly taxable.

The committee noted that the International Board had conceded that the word "amateurism" was regarded as no more than a "veil".

Even the secretary of the RFU, Dudley Wood, had retreated from it and admitted to the committee that he was unable to discover a satisfactory synonym.

Gerald Kaufman, MP (chairman): "You used the word `amateurism' . . ."

Wood: "As I say, we have yet to find a word - and if your committee can help, I would be grateful. We talk about rugby union as a recreational sport. It is a sport for those engaged in full-time occupations, even at the highest level."

Later in Wood's evidence:

John Maxton, MP: "The real problem we have is that you keep talking about an amateur sport, but whenever we ask what is amateurism you say you cannot define it."

Wood: "The old pure amateurism - Corinthian was the word thrown about - that has disappeared. We are in a new world now and it is no longer the right word. I did throw it open to you to find the right one for me."

The chairman, showing a rare degree of restraint, did not say that it was not part of the committee's function to extend Dudley Wood's vocabulary.

In a way, it was a pity that the committee chose to investigate the shamateurism of rugby union at all. For its conclusions did not depend on that. They would have been equally valid had Wood been able to demonstrate that union's practises were as pure as water from the mountain spring.

The committee was exercised by the fate of Adrian Spencer, of Cambridge University, and Steve Pilgrim, of Wasps. Each was sentenced to 12 months' suspension from the game (which Pilgrim has completed but Spencer has still to do.)

Spencer played with league players in a professional match; while Pilgrim had a league trial. Neither was paid for his exertions. The committee is correct in stating that the regulations under which Spencer and Pilgrim were punished concentrate "not on amateurism in rugby union but on edicts against other types of rugby football."

It may be that the free movement between union and league will come about after the International Board pronounces on the question of amateurism later in the year. But suppose it does not happen and that everything remains the same. What then?

Wood has said two things: first that someone has told him that this particular committee does not count for very much and, second, that union is largely self-financing, anyway.

I do not think that this is a very wise response. The game received £180,000 from the Sports Council in 1992/3 and £219,000 in 1993/4 and will receive £80,000 in 1994/5. These may not be large amounts but everything helps. And though my opinion of the committee is not as low as Wood's it can, on any estimation, provide the political ammunition which a determined minister needs.

The Minister for Sport, Iain Sproat, happens to agree with the committee. Whether he would be prepared to put pressure on the Sports Council is another matter. But, contrary to much misleading reporting, no new law would be required to implement the committee's recommendations. For the Sports Council has a wide discretion in its allocation of funds subject only to judicial review by the courts.