Leading Article: Murdoch puts England in the second division

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The Independent Online
To some readers the fate of 15 men and an ovoid ball may not seem compelling. The shenanigans among rugby's rulers might seem a boys' affair, albeit in the case of the (English) Rugby Football Union grown men behaving as boys - badly. From next season England is out of one of the great tournaments in the national sporting calendar, the Five Nations rugby tournament. In selling television rights to British Sky Broadcasting it apparently forgot that the matches people most want to watch are between it and the other countries, Wales, France, Ireland and Scotland. These nations have not signed and have no intention of abandoning their existing television deal, even though Sky is waving its chequebook. The upshot is come the spring there will be no tournament, no Triple Crown nor any of the rest of rugby's popular regalia.

The involvement in all this of Sky and its huge sums of money makes this more than just a question of sport. There are unavoidable allegories here of the condition of modern Britain. Where are those vaunted qualities of phlegm, sportsmanship and a love of orderly procedure in public affairs? The evidence to hand exposes administrative cack-handedness, a wilful disregard of proper procedure and - not a new charge, this, sadly - hopeless short-sightedness. It also says something not very flattering about the vaunted commercial abilities of Rupert Murdoch and his television henchmen who have, it appears, come a cropper.

The Rugby Football Union - immortalised by Will Carling as the "old farts" - signed an agreement with Sky for nearly pounds 90m, the money to be channelled into paying for Twickenham stadium and pay for schools rugby coaches and so on. The RFU seems to have thought the agreement covered its home international matches. Sky had been banking on the other nations in the Five Nations set-up also signing up, at rates well in excess of what the BBC will pay.

How could the RFU have negotiated with Sky without ascertaining whether the other members of the Five Nations consortium would agree to England's idiosyncratic position? To have sought a deal that gave England a larger share of the cake is one thing - no one is saying the other Five Nations rugby officials come out of this looking anything but stiff-necked and recalcitrant. But to proceed without checking the status of England - either within the Five Nations or with substitute competitors from, say, the Tri-Nation set-up down-under - verges on the incredible.

Though the deal might seem an achievement for Rupert Murdoch, Sky Television's moneybags have also demonstrated how lacking in quality and vision many leading sports administrators are. There is nothing wrong with more money; there is everything wrong with a duff bargain that might (this is the case made by Vernon Pugh of the Welsh Rugby Union and the International Board) thwart the longer-term expansion of a sport. Mr Murdoch - or his current representative on earth Mr Sam Chisholm - puff and the RFU all fall down.

This is the age of big money and media contracts, when materialist professionalism is substituting for penurious amateurism. Much of what is happening is welcome. Company law may or may not be adequate to cope with Premiership clubs which are suddenly found in stock-exchange favour or successful rugby clubs such as Bath which have now hit the big time. But who is to say the way the leagues and the associations are run is either efficient or maintains any claims to democratic legitimacy?

Does the RFU really embody the will of rugby? Who speaks for rugby? Is it the players (and how to weight the claims of the amateurs and the would- be pros) or the club officials (oligarchs to a man)? What about the spectators, the people in the stands at Bath and Leicester, or those at home willing the national side to win, feeling as much part of the sporting community as those actually present? It will never do to say that those who pay to view alone should call the shots. If Sky subscribers rule then the laws might as well be rewritten to accommodate commercial breaks every quarter of an hour.

But that turns the sport into a private affair, something to be bargained over by a big private corporation and clubs. It is not and must never be. There is a wider, public interest in the conduct of sports, just as there is in access to a certain category of events which embody the nation and its spirits and which deserve to be broadcast to the greatest number of people. Of course Great Britain will not fall apart if we are deprived of Scotland vs England at Murrayfield or England vs Wales at Twickenham; but those cathartic, binding, passionate occasions do speak to something vital and enduring in the make up of this country.

It is a country about which the owner of Sky, Rupert Murdoch, seems to have very mixed feelings. Is he really the radical the actions of Sky would imply ? Today he can contemplate how he has managed to have made fools of the upper echelons of English rugby union. His clients in the RFU can offer subscribers only second-rate rugby, with patched-together friendlies between England and also-ran teams. Sky's great future hope - pay per view for all major events - is made to look vulnerable thanks in equal measure to the incompetence of England's rugby leadership and its own mistake in believing everyone has a money price at which they can be bought.