Pro rugby 25 years on How ar­gu­ments raged on af­ter a con­tro­ver­sial birth

Issues never faced be­fore across the world, and a bat­tle of me­dia moguls, caused a tough start to the pro­fes­sional era, with the im­pact still be­ing felt today

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Rugby Union - By Mick Cleary chief rugby writer

Pre­science was not a strong point for the Rugby Foot­ball Union’s for­ward plan­ning com­mit­tee in 1995. That was the year rugby went fully pro­fes­sional and as Tony Hal­lett – who sat on the com­mit­tee – re­calls, there was never a plan for the most dra­matic change the sport has seen in mod­ern times.

“Over our dead body was the mantra, un­for­tu­nately,” said Hal­lett, who had been in situ as the RFU’s new sec­re­tary – then equiv­a­lent to chief ex­ec­u­tive – for only 17 days when pro­fes­sion­al­i­sa­tion kicked in. “It was a pig’s ear. We’re still reap­ing the con­se­quences of not be­ing pre­pared prop­erly. There was no plan.”

Even on that seis­mic day on Aug 26 when the chair­man of the In­ter­na­tional Rugby Board, Vernon Pugh, emerged from a ho­tel con­fer­ence room in cen­tral Paris to de­clare that the game was “to be open”, Hal­lett had no idea how the two RFU rep­re­sen­ta­tives at that meet­ing, John Jeav­ons-Fel­lows and Peter Brom­ley, were in­tend­ing to vote. “They were there to lis­ten to the de­bate and make up their own minds as rea­son­able chaps. Sounds rather pre­pos­ter­ous, doesn’t it?”

The an­nounce­ment ought not to have been a sur­prise, given that mo­men­tum had been build­ing as far back as the in­au­gu­ral World Cup in 1987, ac­cord­ing to for­mer Eng­land hooker Brian Moore.

“That was an­other thing that the RFU didn’t want, a World Cup, for the sim­ple rea­son that they feared it would gen­er­ate in­ter­est and money and there­fore lead to pro­fes­sion­al­ism,” Moore re­calls. “That was one of the few things they got right.”

Moore was not alone in be­liev­ing that teams such as New Zealand seemed to be bet­ter con­di­tioned, the con­se­quence of a more holis­tic ap­proach in that coun­try to help­ing play­ers with jobs to get time off to train.

Grad­u­ally, too, the All Blacks were al­lowed to ap­pear in com­mer­cials and reap the re­turns. In Eng­land that process was pro­tracted and fraught with, as Moore re­calls, the RFU want­ing “to con­trol that side of the busi­ness, putting their man in charge of any deal­ings that we did. It stank”.

Even that notable bastion of English­ness, the cur­rent chair­man of World Rugby, Bill Beau­mont, be­came en­tan­gled when re­ceiv­ing pro­ceeds from an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

Moore led the fight for a fair re­turn on earn­ings. From 1991, the RFU sanc­tioned Com­mu­ni­ca­tion for Reward, a pro­gramme de­signed to cover any player’s spon­sor­ship deals. The re­sults were oc­ca­sion­ally ec­cen­tric: in the same year, the Eng­land squad piled into the Abbey Road record­ing stu­dios – which once hosted the Bea­tles – to record a World Cup song, Run With The Ball. It was sup­posed to gen­er­ate some cash for them; per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly to those who heard it, the sums in­volved were rather less than life-chang­ing.

Jug­gling work and play

It was seen as a noble ac­tiv­ity at Twick­en­ham to jug­gle work and play, with RFU sec­re­tary Dud­ley Wood, an unashamed de­fender of the faith, hold­ing the line against the bar­bar­ians (the non-rugby kind) at the gates. The dy­namic was un­der strain, with pro­gres­sives push­ing for pro­fes­sion­al­ism and play­ers rightly de­mand­ing that their worth be recog­nised, but the diehards re­fused to en­gage.

“I had sev­eral run-ins with Dud­ley Wood and my prin­ci­pal gripe look­ing back is that as a chief ex­ec­u­tive of a lead­ing busi­ness he ought to have been pre­par­ing his com­pany for what lay ahead, even if he dis­agreed with it,” said Moore, who was jug­gling his time as a lawyer with be­ing an in­ter­na­tional player.

In the lead-in to Eng­land’s ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated game against the All Blacks at Twick­en­ham in 1993, Moore was em­broiled in a high-level lit­i­ga­tion case which came to a head on the day be­fore the match.

“The only time that vi­tal state­ments could be taken for a case to be heard on the fol­low­ing Monday was in Glas­gow on the Friday af­ter­noon,” Moore said. “So I did the cap­tain’s train­ing run at Twick­en­ham, took a taxi to Heathrow, flew to Scot­land, took the state­ments, flew back to Lon­don, did the team meet­ing in Rich­mond, or­dered room ser­vice and was up past mid­night tran­scrib­ing it all.”

As you might ex­pect, Moore took it all in his stride, Eng­land record­ing only their fourth vic­tory over New Zealand in 88 years by win­ning a fierce game 15-9.

A tale of two hemi­spheres

Other unions took dif­fer­ent ap­proaches. For years, there were whis­pers that rugby was pro­fes­sional in the south­ern hemi­sphere be­fore of­fi­cial bless­ing was given in 1995.

Not in Aus­tralia, ac­cord­ing to for­mer Wal­la­bies fly-half and cap­tain Michael Ly­nagh. “I didn’t get a penny for play­ing,” he said. “Com­mer­cial en­dorse­ments were al­lowed, but even then the union held the whip hand, in­sist­ing that any deals we had as play­ers did not con­flict with their spon­sors.

“I re­mem­ber once hav­ing to take a day off work to record a TV com­mer­cial for Queens­land’s spon­sor, XXXX beer. It was based around a typ­i­cal Aussie clap­per­board house and we shot all day, only for the di­rec­tor to ring later to say that we had to come back for an­other day’s shoot be­cause the ten­ants had leased it il­le­gally to the pro­duc­tion com­pany and were rum­bled when the owner drove past and saw me sur­rounded by lights and crew on the porch. I had to take an­other day off work to reshoot the ad.”

Ly­nagh ac­knowl­edges that the Aus­tralian union was proac­tive in the push to­wards pro­fes­sion­al­ism. In South Africa, how­ever, pay­ment was al­ready hap­pen­ing. “The Spring­boks were paid R130,000 (about £23,000) for win­ning the World Cup in 1995,” re­veals Ed­ward Grif­fiths, chief ex­ec­u­tive at the time. “South Africa had grown used to hav­ing to op­er­ate to its own rules dur­ing isolation. Pro­fes­sion­al­ism wasn’t a big leap for them, re­ally. And they had a plan for the fu­ture, which the north­ern hemi­sphere didn’t.”

The plan, a £360mil­lion deal with Ru­pert Mur­doch’s News Cor­po­ra­tion, was re­vealed on the eve of the 1995 World Cup fi­nal at El­lis Park in Johannesbu­rg.

“As sure as night fol­lows day, all that money meant that the game would go pro­fes­sional,” Hal­lett said. “The deal took the breath away. Yet still the RFU chose to dither.”

“We went for din­ner with Si­mon Le Bon”

The RFU ig­nored the re­alpoli­tik of the era, leav­ing the game list­less. Will Car­ling’s “57

old farts” jibe, that led to him be­ing briefly ex­cluded from Eng­land’s 1995 World Cup prepa­ra­tions, cap­tured the mood.

Money was set­ting the agenda. There was even a rebel cir­cus in the off­ing as an­other me­dia mogul, Kerry Packer, was per­suaded to take aim at his ri­val, Mur­doch, by sign­ing up all the world’s best play­ers, so ren­der­ing the News Corp deal with South Africa, New Zealand and Aus­tralia, worth­less. Packer al­most suc­ceeded. “They did a good woo­ing job,” Moore said. “James Packer took me and Rob An­drew to din­ner at the Cafe Royal in Lon­don along with Si­mon and Yas­min Le Bon for some strange rea­son. Vir­tu­ally the en­tire Eng­land squad signed let­ters of in­tent. There was plenty of in­ter­est.”

Ly­nagh would not al­low Packer’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives into the Wal­la­bies’ World Cup camp, but made his play­ers aware that change was com­ing within union it­self as it geared up to go pro­fes­sional.

In South Africa, Grif­fiths sum­moned the Spring­boks squad to a meet­ing only min­utes af­ter they had been cel­e­brat­ing on the El­lis Park podium with Nel­son Man­dela.

“The bat­tle of the egos between Mur­doch and Packer en­sured that play­ers would be looked af­ter and al­though the cir­cus al­most came into be­ing the deal we man­aged to put to­gether between Louis Luyt [pres­i­dent of the union] and the Spring­boks saved the day,” Grif­fiths said. “Once the Spring­boks went with the unions [in early Au­gust] the cir­cus was dead.”

“Bonuses were so big that if we kept win­ning we’d go bust”

A few weeks later, the game for­malised the move to pro­fes­sion­al­ism, even if many were un­pre­pared for the con­se­quences.

“It was the Wild West for us up here,” said Dick Best, the un­paid Eng­land coach from 1992-94 and then the salar­ied di­rec­tor of rugby at Har­lequins when the an­nounce­ment was made. “No one knew what to do. Sir John Hall thought he saw value in rugby union, a sport he didn’t re­ally know. He set up New­cas­tle Fal­cons and signed up Rob An­drew and half the Wasps team.

“I was charged with sort­ing out a blue­print for Quins. I worked on a ba­sic salary for play­ers, with an added £500 ap­pear­ance bonus for first-team­ers and a £1,000 win bonus. We won our first 13 games, at which point I was sum­moned to a board meet­ing and told by the fi­nance di­rec­tor that we would go bust if we kept on win­ning.

“We had to re­draft all the con­tracts. I did man­age to get a fleet of 42 cars for the squad, only for one of the props to come to my of­fice and plead for a TV as he couldn’t drive. That’s the way it was. It was all seat-ofthe-pants stuff back then.” As it was at na­tional level. Hal­lett recog­nised the need to sign up the play­ers be­fore the clubs got hold of them. It was an ar­du­ous bat­tle to get the RFU com­mit­tee on­side with such a move, but they did agree to it. “We had the con­tracts drafted, agreed a fee of £70,000 and got it through the RFU sub-com­mit­tee, only for it to be thrown out by the ex­ec­u­tive,” Hal­lett said. “That handed over the ini­tia­tive to the clubs and that ten­sion between club and coun­try is still there now. The RFU messed up. There was no clar­ity, no vi­sion and we have duly paid the price.”

The birth pangs of pro­fes­sion­al­ism have lasted longer than any­one thought.

The ar­gu­ments over a global sea­son and the best struc­tures for each coun­try are still rag­ing. The de­ci­sion taken in Paris on Aug 26, 1995, was sup­posed to put an end to such frac­tious de­bates. It did not. The play­ers have kept their side of the bar­gain, de­liv­er­ing on the field. The same can­not be said of the ad­min­is­tra­tors.

Spring­bok deal Nel­son Man­dela was on the podium as the Spring­boks en­joyed World Cup glory, but the squad were soon sum­moned to a meet­ing amid a bat­tle between tele­vi­sion moguls

Law and or­der Brian Moore jug­gled his time between club rugby and rep­re­sent­ing Eng­land with a ca­reer as a lawyer. He led the fight with the RFU for a fair re­turn on play­ers’ earn­ings

Michael Ly­nagh would not al­low me­dia mogul Kerry Packer’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives into the Wal­la­bies’ World Cup camp, but made play­ers aware that change was com­ing

Power

Player moves Rob An­drew was signed up for New­cas­tle Fal­cons, with value be­ing seen in rugby as a pro­fes­sional sport by Sir John Hall

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