Has Murdoch queered rugby's pitch?

In Britain, the professional game took Sky TV's ball and ran with it; Down Under there was the opposite reaction. Meanwhile the so-called amateurs are sitting pretty, says Steve Bale
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The Independent Online
As Rupert Murdoch is a media magnate not a philanthropist, it would be a mistake to imagine that his sudden conversion to rugby league has anything to do with his love of sport rather than the expansion of his business empire.

Conspiracy theorists will speculate that Murdoch's moves are intended to bring him control of rugby union as well. True or false, his creation of Super League, designed by the power of money to eradicate the old rugby league structures in Britain and, more especially, Australia, will almost inevitably change the face of rugby union.

Super League is an unlikely offshoot of Murdoch's News Ltd, a device to take a bigger slice of lucrative, sports-fixated Australian television. After a week of panic-stricken reaction in both rugby league and rugby union down under, there is every sign that rugby union, the last purportedly amateur box-office sport, will now turn professional, too.

In fact Murdoch is hastening a process that had already begun and would anyway have reached some sort of conclusion in August when rugby union's International Board, its world-wide governing body, meets in Paris. At the very least there would have been a radical expansion in the rugby- related earning power of these supposed amateurs, and quite possibly an abandonment of the dread word amateur altogether.

But the implication of Murdoch's move into rugby league - that he is prepared to invest so much money that he could buy up anyone he fancied from rugby union to play in Super League - has brought forward that agenda because of Australian and New Zealand desperation that their most precious assets, their international players, are about to be stripped bare.

It is a measure of how far rugby union has moved that when both countries' rugby union administrators called for overt professionalism as a means of combating Murdoch's depredations, there was neither shock nor resentment in this country.

When the rugby league clubs in the north of England broke away a century ago it was over the Rugby Football Union's refusal to permit compensation for lost wages, let alone full-blown professionalism. Nowadays most people, even in the so-called home unions of the British isles, now accept that it is quite wrong to impose a professional level of commitment on amateur sportsmen and, whether or not Rupert Murdoch had anything to do with it, the death of amateurism is at hand.

That said, the pressures in Australia, where rugby league is overwhelmingly the leading sport in New South Wales and Queensland, are dramatically different from those in England, where even in its heartland of Lancashire and Yorkshire, rugby league comes a distant second to football.

The Australian Rugby Football League has, from a position of strength, decided to take on Murdoch in what amounts to a fight to the death. By contrast, the parallel proposal for Britain, to establish a handsomely financed, elitist Super League with restricted membership, was accepted with indecent haste by the Rugby Football League club chairmen, some of whom began to repent as soon as they had voted their clubs out of existence.

In Australian rugby union, meanwhile, there is outright panic that Super League will buy the services of as many as a dozen of the national team who are about to defend the Rugby World Cup in South Africa. The same goes for New Zealand, where the rugby union authorities were already in a flap over the high-profile introduction of an Auckland side into the existing Australian rugby league competition.

So for the first time both the New Zealand and Australian Rugby Football Unions have taken the ultimate semantic leap by overtly coming out in favour of the abandonment of amateurism. As they well knew, it had in effect already happened.

Although players are not supposed to be paid fees for running on to the field to play a game, more or less anything else in marketing, promotion, writing and broadcasting is either tolerated or actively encouraged. Take it from me that however much he admires the Independent, Tony Underwood, the England rugby union wing, does not contribute articles to this newspaper solely for the fun of it.

But because the Murdoch Super League is viewed as more of a menace in Australasia than it is here, there has already opened a chasm in rugby union between the northern and southern hemispheres that could leave union as permanently divided as it was when the northern clubs formed the Rugby League in 1895.

The point is that the antipodeans are desperate for urgent action to declare rugby union professional and so allow them to compete - on a level playing-field, as it were - in the marketplace with rugby league. Yet even Leo Williams, the bullish chairman of the Australian RFU, admits that the sums his organisation could offer would be chicken feed compared with the banquet Murdoch has suddenly cooked up.

So whatever they do can only reduce and certainly not eliminate the defection of players from union to league, and that would leave the Australian and New Zealand teams enduringly emasculated. Turn back to Britain and if anyone is particularly worried he has yet to show it.

Of course there is concern - especially in Wales, where Super League plans one of its new clubs and economic considerations make easier targets of the rugby union players - that there may be an initial exodus of bought men and more generally that any assault on Australian or New Zealand rugby is an assault on the game as a whole.

But at the same time sceptical questions are being asked. Once Super League in this country is up and running and is being treated to its blanket coverage on Sky TV, how many will watch it and will it receive decent public support? In fact, it is just as likely that rugby league, even (or perhaps especially) wearing summer clothes, will remain the geographically limited creation it has always been.

And if this were the case, would Murdoch - who in any event is more interested in Australia - then simply move on to the next project? Where that would leave British rugby league is a question rugby league may already be wondering about. Where it would leave British rugby union, in its new quasi-professional guise, would be at the kick-off of a new ascendancy.

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