Leading Article: Carling was right: what a bunch ...

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The Independent Online
Will Carling's infamous assessment of the managerial competence of the men in blazers who run English rugby is coming horribly true. The amateurs at the Rugby Football Union, which runs the game in England, are making a complete hash of turning the game professional. In the process the RFU has almost ceded its right to run the game. That is a pity because the alternatives offered by the big, cash-hungry clubs are narrow-minded and self-serving.

The truth is that the sport as it is played here is often a second-rate spectacle. The game's administrators should have taken the opportunity of professionalism to turn it into a more exciting, spectator-friendly, fast-moving sport. Instead the discussion appears to be polarised between the greed of the top clubs and RFU's reluctance to leave the past.

Let's go back to the beginning. Rugby Union as it is played in England is often boring, mired in the winter mud. Some of the most exciting players, in the centre and on the wings, hardly see the ball during the average game. An average game is frequently stopped by infringements that many spectators do not understand. In England forward power has become the dull but effective formula for winning.

By contrast, in Rugby League (13 players rather than Union's 15 and professional for more than a century) the rules are simple, the skills impressive and the spectacle invariably exciting and entertaining.

This audit of the sorry state of Rugby Union as a spectator sport should have formed the starting point for any serious discussion of how to turn it professional. When it was obvious last summer that the game was going professional, the RFU should have consulted the clubs and come up with proposals to protect the junior clubs, which cannot afford to go professional, while creating a top-flight pan-European competition to provide rugby of almost international standards. Instead, it has reacted painfully slowly to initiatives from the most powerful clubs, which are threatening to break away to create their own little-Englander super league. These clubs' narrow interests are unlikely to take the sport as a whole or even themselves very far without a wider, larger vision.

The mess English rugby has got itself into, squabbling about money and power while missing the bigger picture, is a far cry from the position in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where the Super-12 series between the best regional teams in the southern hemisphere has proved a huge success. The RFU and the leading clubs should hotfoot it there to learn some lessons, and fast.