Rugby: enjoy it while it lasts

Whether England win or lose, the game will never be the same again, writes Simon Kelner, sports editor
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The Independent Online
IT IS tempting to view this afternoon's semi-final of the Rugby World Cup in simplistic terms: England v New Zealand, white and black, good and evil. And as one of the last glorious moments of an amateur game soon to be razed by the torch of professionalism.

There is a growing feeling that whoever picks up the Webb Ellis trophy and runs off with it next Saturday will be heading in the direction of the bank, ushering in a wind of change that will blow away the oldest of farts. Rugby union, the most defiantly amateur of our major sports, is not so much at the crossroads as approaching spaghetti junction, but it seems inevitable which route it will take. As with football, athletics, golf and tennis before it, the demands of the players will force the ruling body to abandon the principle it holds most dear.

What we are about to witness is a shift comparable with that day, 100 years ago, when the working men of the North of England forced a schism in rugby. They demanded payment for playing, and established a part-time professional game of their own: rugby league.

International rugby union today generates large amounts of money from gate receipts, sponsorship and television deals. It is no less demanding, intense or high-profile than the leading professional sports, and yet those taking part cannot legitimately receive money simply for pulling on the jersey.

"Legitimately" is an important word. Ever since the 1970s, when it was suggested Welsh players entered the dressing room to find their boots stuffed with tenners, there have been accusations that the rules were more or less openly flouted, particularly in France, Australia and New Zealand. Importantly, the advent in 1987 of a World Cup, which increased the amount of cash coming into the game, also exposed players from the British Isles to those of other countries that have a more liberal approach to the amateur ethos.

If there is pressure from within for change, external forces present an equally serious challenge to those who currently run the game. For an indication of what could happen they need only to look at rugby league which, propelled by Rupert Murdoch's millions, is about to be reinvented as a summer sport.

This promised bonanza has given rugby league the financial muscle to tempt the world's best rugby union players over the wall - at the World Cup in South Africa the New Zealand camp has been so beset with league representatives that any journalist wishing to talk to one of the All Blacks has had to go through a vetting procedure.

But rugby union faces more dangerous interlopers. The example of rugby league shows that there is little to stop a Murdoch, a Packer or even a Berlusconi from buying up the game lock, stock and barrel, offering the players riches beyond their dreams and forming a worldwide superleague. And why not, then, merge the two codes? Surely Bath versus Wigan or the All Blacks versus Great Britain will shift a few satellite dishes.

Throughout history, sport has been used by the rich and powerful for their own ends, but Mr Murdoch's contract with rugby league has a pernicious aspect: one man has bought the jerseys, will decide who plays and when, and, most significantly, will hold the television viewer to ransom: buy a dish or miss the match. Increasingly, sport is being used as a weapon in the battle to win a share of the television market, and rugby union is being naive if it does not think it is open to similar treatment.

Not in our lifetime, we might have said only a year ago. But the pace of change is now so quick that a deal may be struck as soon as the engraver has finished with the World Cup trophy, and unless those in charge of rugby union stay behind the steering wheel, there is a danger of it careering out of control. Against this background, the scrapping of even such a fundamental tenet as amateur status increasingly looks like the only option.

Paradoxically, the Rugby Football Union itself has played a full role in the move towards professionalism. The first steps along the road were taken in 1986 when Dudley Wood took over as secretary at Twickenham and immediately changed the RFU's telephone number from an ex-directory one. It was as if the Kremlin had instituted a happy hour, and was a signal that the outside world and its attendant corruptions were ready to be embraced. A marketing department was established, sponsorship agents were appointed, huge television deals were struck, and, piece by piece, the venerable home of English rugby was transformed into a state-of-the-art stadium replete with executive boxes and sponsors' suites.

The most vivid proof of the changing climate came in the annual Oxford- Cambridge match. In the 1980s, this anachronistic, quintessentially corinthian, hopelessly English fixture suddenly became the big ticket. City offices were deserted, pin-stripes were exchanged for Barbours and crowds of 60,000 were happy to pay pounds 12 a seat to watch a bunch of students. It did not take much imagination to work out that the game's earning capacity was almost limitless.

At the same time, a highly organised league structure was es-tablished among English clubs, and players were seduced by lucrative offers of "jobs", often little more than sinecures funded by the club sponsors. It was no accident that the England team went on to enjoy success on an unparalleled scale - three Grand Slams in the Five Nations' Championship over the past five years and runners-up in the World Cup of 1991. (They even found a theme song to help with the branding, although why "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", a negro spiritual, should be suitable for the most prosperous and patrician of sports has never been adequately explained.)

English players were quick to cash in on their fame; Will Carling set up a management consultancy, others turned to the media, some opened restaurants and bars, all made a tidy living out of the game. In the other home nations, where less money was washing around, the opportunities for players were less plentiful and Wales in particular suffered from an exodus of players to rugby league. The Welsh Union has been advocating for years a system of pay-for-play that would enable it to keep hold of its favourite sons. The recent advances of rugby league in Australia and New Zealand, and especially the establishment of a new club in Auckland, have added significant weight to their urgent appeals.

So what will be lost when pay packets are handed out with the Radox after the match? There are some who believe that tangible rewards will brutalise what is already a highly charged, physical game. Certainly there is an almost subterranean quality to much of the action on the field which allows nefarious deeds to go undetected. But would, say, pounds 1,000- a-man have inspired the Western Samoans into higher levels of ferocity, or would it make Welshmen try harder against England? I doubt it.

There is no more logic to the view that, if top players are paid, the game at its lowest levels will suffer and its roots as a social pastime will not be nourished. This is like suggesting that, because Nick Faldo earns pounds 2m a year, we can't enjoy our game of golf on a Saturday.

Clearly, many will mourn the passing of rugby union's status as the last bastion of amateurism, but that image has been so severely tarnished with every tale of under-the-counter payments, bending the rules and double standards as to be more a figment of a committee man's imagination.

Much of the underlying thrust of the "Fartgate" saga was that the players felt the men who ran the game were unsympathetic to their concerns. It is not as if the England players are at the head of the queue at the pay- out window; indeed, most would prefer to pursue a full-time occupation while being allowed to make maximum capital from their fame as rugby players. The desire to move towards full-time professionalism, with rewards to match, comes from the southern hemisphere, where there is less competition for sponsors' bucks.

The International Rugby Board meets in August and it has already intimated that wholesale changes to the regulations concerning amateurism will be made. How far it is prepared to go down the road to pay-for-play is not clear, but lovers of the game must hope they are aware of the presence of wealthy infidels at the gates, and will respond accordingly.

This afternoon, a massive television audience will be gathering in living- rooms throughout the land and it will be difficult to avoid the feeling that, whatever happens on the pitch in Cape Town, another game is about to unfold on an altogether different level. The players have glimpsed the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow nation and, in the words of the Eddie Cantor song: "How you gonna keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?"

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