Rugby union still faces a myriad of challenges 25 years into professionalism

Questions remain around player protection and the futures of smaller clubs

South African captain Francois Pienaar lifts the William Webb Ellis trophy after the victory over New Zealand in the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final. Photograph: Inpho

South African captain Francois Pienaar lifts the William Webb Ellis trophy after the victory over New Zealand in the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final. Photograph: Inpho

 

Twenty-five years today a group of men sat in the Ambassador Hotel on Boulevard Haussmann in Paris and acknowledged the game was finally up. Rugby union could no longer be classed as an amateur sport and payment for playing would henceforth be permitted. When the shaken officials emerged to announce the decision formally, to quote the former Wallabies captain Nick Farr-Jones: “It looked like they had just come out of their own funeral.”

One of the English delegates was later spotted standing with his outstretched hands pressed against a wall, rocking slowly back and forth in a headbutting motion. “It’s gone,” was the two-word response from Ireland’s Syd Millar to one of his compatriots. Amateurism had resembled a fig leaf with multiple holes for some time but, even so, the abruptness of its demise still came as a slight shock.

In many ways the game has been chasing its tail ever since. Some unions picked up the ball and rushed straight to the bank with it; others fatally delayed and continue to pay the price. The English Rugby Football Union fits squarely in the latter category, having naively imagined a year’s moratorium would allow them breathing space to ponder the future. Within a few weeks it was too late. John Hall had taken over at Newcastle and a raft of other private club owners were scrambling to contract the country’s leading players. Even now, a quarter of a century later, the English club v country ramifications rumble on.

Hindsight is a particularly wonderful thing when it come to rugby politics. It is not so much professionalism that has caused so much angst but the glaring failure on so many fronts to plan for it in advance. Not everyone possessed the foresight of the late Vernon Pugh, the shrewd Welsh QC who advised the International Rugby Football Board the dam of amateurism could no longer hold. It is worth pausing to contemplate what might have happened had the RFU signed up the players there and then. Divisional sides, probably, with far fewer professional contracts and many tens of millions of pounds saved.

Plenty of long-established English clubs got burned trying – and failing – to fly higher than Icarus. Wakefield, Orrell, West Hartlepool, London Welsh . . . looking back, it was sadly inevitable there would be serious casualties. Others were propped up by owners who ended up spending far more than they ever envisaged. Some of the names have an old testament feel nowadays – Ashley Levett, Frank Warren, Chris Wright – with only Nigel Wray straddling the entire quarter-century.

Saracens’ balance-sheet losses over the intervening period were around £75 million even before the past year’s salary cap and Covid-19 double whammy. Without Wray and other investors such as the South African magnate Johann Rupert, they would have been sunk a long time ago.

Tadhg Furlong in action for Ireland during the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand in Tokyo. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Tadhg Furlong in action for Ireland during the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand in Tokyo. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

But here’s the thing. The product on the field has come on by leaps and bounds in terms of fitness, athleticism, analysis and all-round skill. To see tighthead props Kyle Sinckler or Tadhg Furlong handling with the dexterity of playmaking backs or Semi Radradra redefining the definition of an attacking threat is to appreciate the benefits of professionalism not always reflected on the bottom line. Likewise goal-kicking, now so universally good that people are talking about designing a ball that is slightly more difficult to kick.

How lucky has the game also been, in no particular order, over the past 25 years to have players such as Brian O’Driscoll, Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson, Richie McCaw, George Smith, Dan Carter and Maro Itoje redefining the positions they play. Nor has professionalism, as some warned, brought about the instant death of rugby’s camaraderie and joie de vivre, strained though such qualities can sometimes appear. The British & Irish Lions and the Barbarians are still around, despite the best efforts of certain people.

So do we think rugby union has changed, overall, for better or worse? Swivel back to 1995 and the sport had just enjoyed the most significant Rugby World Cup of all time. South Africa’s triumph went far beyond mere sport, Jonah Lomu was a global superstar and the 10-year deal worth £335 million agreed by the southern hemisphere powers with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and unveiled on the eve of the final was clearly a game-changer.

And now? There were 76 countries affiliated to the old IRB in 1996; currently there are 123, with Jordan, Qatar and Turkey the latest admissions. Rugby sevens, importantly, is an Olympic sport and the women’s game is increasingly popular. The downside is that adult amateur participation levels are falling, with a corresponding decline in the number of teams clubs can put out. There are way more leisure choices for young people these days but rugby has become a sport requiring a decent level of fitness as a basic prerequisite.

Jonah Lomu runs through Ireland’s defence during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Jonah Lomu runs through Ireland’s defence during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

And if the grassroots start shrinking, where does that ultimately leave the top end? Gazing into the post-Covid-19 future, assuming there is a viable one, it requires little imagination to foresee a widening gap in the 15-a-side game between the haves and the have-nots. Fewer professional clubs look a certainty, with a gradual realisation on all sides that the bickering has to stop and the fresh investment entering the sport via private equity firms such as CVC simply cannot be squandered.

By 2045, too, the argument will long since have switched from how much the players deserve to be paid to whether the gladiators of yesteryear were adequately protected from themselves. In the United States it is estimated compensation for NFL players diagnosed with conditions such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by impacts to the head may eventually total $1.4 billion. For a less wealthy sport like rugby, something similar would be ruinous.

The moral of professional rugby union’s first 25 years? Money alone does not buy happiness. – Guardian

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