LEADING ARTICLE:Rugby scores a late conversion

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Rugby Union long ago jumped out of the last ditch of amateurism, even though the sport's authorities could never bring themselves to acknowledge what had happened. So it should scarcely have been a surprise that the game's governing body, the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB), abandoned the concept altogether when it met in Paris at the weekend.

More unexpected was that the IRFB, which has for years been indecisive and stuffy in resisting commercial realities, went all the way and accepted outright professionalism. This is a revolution. Rugby Union is the last of the television box-office sports to leap from the Corinthianism with which they all began into a harsher world in which leading players, far from playing for love, now play for money.

It has taken a long time: 100 years ago tomorrow the Northern Union, precursor of the Rugby League, was formed as a breakaway from Rugby Union over a rather less radical dispute about reimbursing players for wages lost through playing. And in Paris yesterday one could not avoid the impression that the administrators summoned up their courage through necessity rather than conviction.

This is a pity. The reform is a natural and probably inevitable development. It is, after all, Rugby Union itself which, thanks to its apparently unstoppable commercial success, created pressure for change, in particular from the players on whom it made ever-increasing demands without having to fork out a penny-piece. Eventually, that pressure became irresistible.

The IRFB and the rugby unions that now run the sport in 67 countries worldwide should have moved earlier so that they dictated the pace of change, and managed the reform, rather than merely reacting to events.

Instead of acknowledging that professionalism was not only acceptable but also just, the IRFB watched in horror as rival media magnates either bought into the game for vast sums (Rupert Murdoch in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) or tried to take the sport over completely (Kerry Packer with his abortive attempt to set up a rival international establishment).

Indeed, if the IRFB had not given way yesterday, many of its constituent rugby unions would have acted unilaterally, if only to stop the now-discredited Packer circus.

Now the players suddenly hold the bargaining power and they will certainly use it to the authorities' discomfiture. The England players, for instance, already promised around pounds 40,000 a year by their own rugby union, will now want the money in direct payments - unequivocally a salary - rather than in the form of trust funds as was agreed only last week when the Paris meeting was expected to stop short of sanctioning outright pay-for- play.

Most people knew years ago that this day would come. It was clear once sponsorship attracted millions of pounds and players were expected to train every week to play for England half-a-dozen times a year. Regrettably, the IRFB, comprising the very people who should have known best, remained longest in the dark.

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