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