Once upon a time, many moons ago, there was one game. And the game was Rugby Union. Those that played the game were known as
Rugby players. And all was sweetness and light in the hallowed halls of the Rugby Football Union, as the rugby players played the game for
the enjoyment and camaraderie of being beaten almost senseless in the pursuit of an odd shaped leather ball and more beer than you could
shake a pointy stick at. No-one took money to play; no-one expected it, for in those exalted days of Victoria, the game was everything, and
money was the root of all evil. Amateurism ruled the roost.
But dissension soon crept in. There were those that felt that a few shillings to offset the time they had taken from work, and thus were unpaid for, was little to ask from a game that was in its own way making a few shillings from them. The rumble soon became a roar, as clubs, especially those in the north, slowly accepted their players gripes, and joined their own voices to the clamour for broken time payments. But it was not to be - the game was to remain amateur; there were to be no payments for playing. Eventually however, clubs began to make those payments... and were suspended by the Rugby Football Union for sullying the spirit of the game with cash. And so the great rift happened in 1895, at the George Hotel in Huddersfield, twenty leading clubs in the north voted to break away from the Rugby Football Union and form the Northern Rugby Football Union.
Professionalism had begun in earnest.
That new union eventually developed into the Rugby Football League, of course, and to this day has continued its heinous crime - in the eyes of some - to pay its players. Interestingly enough, in recent years one of the more forthright critics to this professional approach has been the British Amateur Rugby League Association... but that's another story, for someone else, on another day.
For a further one hundred years, Rugby Union held out against payments for playing. Great scandals broke over players "going north." France was ejected from the Five Nations tournament in the 1930s for alleged payment of players. The decline of Welsh rugby after the glory years of the late seventies has been blamed on the loss of so many leading players at the peak of their playing careers changing codes. Rumours of "boot money" drifted around club rooms, question marks hanging over players heads. Questions remained unanswered as to why international ticket allocations disappeared into the hands of shady men in too-loud suits, but the profits of which never seemed to quite make it through the club accounts. Thin, wiry men wearing cloth caps and accompanied by whippets were politely, but firmly, asked to vacate playing fields during games and team practises. Players were dropped for even mentioning the words "Rugby" and "League" in the same sentence. Past players, with glorious careers were cast out into the cold because they wrote books about rugby union. It was a cold war. A very long, cold war.
And then after nearly a hundred years of attrition, of staring the enemy - money - over the parapets that were Twickenham's (amongst others') - walls, voices began to be raised again.
The game of Rugby Union Football had gone through a transformation in the eighties, and had become instead of a cosy club for a few well oiled ex-public schoolboys, and a handful of off-duty miners, rather something quite palatable to the great British public. Attendance at internationals rose geometrically; demand for tickets to those internationals rose exponentially. Players became household names. Players became more famous than royalty. Some players mixed with royalty. Royalty even became players. Suddenly the game became transformed - gone were the days of beer swilling rugger buggers dropping their trousers in public, and decorating curry houses with vomit. Suddenly, it was "in" to play or support rugby. Clubs embraced the family ethos, ran huge coaching sessions for kids on Sunday mornings, spruced up the club houses and sold Sunday lunches to mums and dads. The old days were numbered.
Successful Rugby World Cups brought the game into homes that before would never have dreamed of watching it; marketing men pushed the spin-offs, and the Unions embraced the concepts because it meant.... money. But still the players remained amateurs. No payments for playing was still the word... but the grip of the ideal was loosening. First, trust funds for book royalties. Then modeling, or advertising... big names started to make a bit of money from being household names, as long as they didn't do whatever they were doing in a rugby shirt, or holding a rugby ball. But that wasn't enough... everyone wanted a piece of the pie, and the players were being pushed more and more to provide the filling, the pastry and the cream. Something had to give.
Eventually, after the 1995 Rugby World Cup, it gave. Various international media men were offering players what they had dreamed of: fat wallets for playing Rugby Union. The game was almost in tatters; almost twenty years earlier the game of professional cricket was torn asunder in a similar way, and the International Rugby Union fraternity was staring the same fate down the barrel.
And so, it happened. Almost overnight it seemed, the hundred years of amateurism, over which so much metaphorical blood had been spilled, was over. The IRB declared the game of Rugby Football Union professional, and in true ham-fisted manner, left the nuances to individual unions. And the professional game began.
Almost amazingly to rugby supporters in the UK, the game of rugby union was declared professional half way through the 1995/96 season; too late for much immediate effect. Even more amazing to supporters in England, the RFU which had stood against professionalism so vehemently for those hundred years, not only embraced the concept, but declared the entire game in England was to be open. Every club had the right to pay any player. Possibly the only thing that was more amazing than the RFU's decision, was the French Rugby Federation's declaration that the game in France was to remain officially amateur. Incroyable!!
The late months of the 95/96 season began to see changes immediately. Clubs found sugar daddies with bottomless wallets, and players with lifelong ties to unfashionable clubs disappeared overnight to the new paymasters. The summer passed with increasing news of players resigning their careers to become full time professional rugby players, player transfers, and meaningless cross-code matches to titillate the new or easily-entertained supporter.
Then this new season arrived with a bang. Big money, big games, big changes. Rugby matches being played in soccer stadiums, big name signings.. and a welcome back into the fold of those men ostracized for so long; the rugby league players.
And so to the present. As I write the professional game in Britain is nearing the end of its first year. How has the game in Britain changed in this first year? Or has it changed at all?
This first year of professionalism in British rugby has coincided, not accidentally, with the full participation of new competitions at club level. The European Cup, its baby brother, the Conference, and the Anglo-Welsh competition. Side by side with the existing national leagues, and the international season, continually burgeoning. What a cornucopia of delights; what a sumptuous banquet of rugby for us all to enjoy.
At last players have been able to concentrate on their games, improve skills and fitness levels without the strain of having to earn a living simultaneously elsewhere, and the worry of potential long term injury wrecking that livelihood. The club rosters have been swelled by large names from abroad, and rumours have been rife as to the next major signings. Laws have altered - in mid season also - to accommodate the requirements of a faster, more exciting and expansive game for these stars to display their talents. Accompanying those international stars have been the Rugby League boys - some out and out RL players, some Union converts returning to the game that nurtured them. Crowds have risen, and the competitions taken on new meaning. The English first division had been a two horse race for years, with the Cup close behind it, but this season has seen a equaling of clubs' abilities and thrilling encounters are played every week, with shocks and surprises at every round.
The game would appear to be healthier than it ever was. What could possibly be wrong with this new garden of Eden?
Unfortunately, we don't have to look to hard to see the cracks appearing in this new veneer of professionalism. The entire season in England has been overshadowed by the continuing and (n)on-going saga of RFU vs. EPRUC; the struggle for control of the game at the top level, for the destiny of the players involved at that top level - and the money that goes with it. Players were threatening not to represent their nation; players did not represent their divisions generally, and embarrassingly, against touring opposition. This dispute lingers on.
The early season was overshadowed by the RFU vs.Celts TV disputes; following the RFU's unilateral sale of television rights to England home games to a satellite TV company and ignoring the accepted practise of multi-laterally reaching such arrangements with the other home nations, England were threatened with expulsion from the Five Nations tournament, maybe this year, maybe the following. This storm in a teacup was finally laid to rest by some diplomacy by Wales' Vernon Pugh, we are led to believe, but it is difficult not to cynically wonder if the underlying motives for the dispute were not just plain money again, rather than the posturing associated with principle that was so evident.
On the playing side, all would seem fine... top stars, close games... all the fun of the fair. But have clubs sold their soul?? Newcastle, once mighty and proud "Gosforth," now basically run a single professional outfit. Those that built the club and were possibly part of its heyday in the 1970s now find themselves virtually persona non grata in the new Newcastle Falcons RFC. Gosforth, such as it is now, is a struggling club playing on rented pitches with no club house. The top League names "came south" to show the Union crowds how their skills and professionalism could destroy the opposition. But with the exception of only a couple of players such as Connolly and to a lesser degree Jason Robinson, most were left at times floundering in a new world of rucks, mauls and releasing the ball in the tackle, deprived of the face saving take-the-tackle. Supporters have been left wondering if the inflated wages paid to some of these stars have been worth paying, while those that have maybe earned their thirty pieces of silver have now left, returning to their Rugby League homes plenty richer, and leaving their clubs having to replace them with second-stringers short of first team exposure.
As for the Rugby League boys that have come home, one - Tuigamala, a former Rugby Union man anyway - has now definitely returned to League, despite Wasps' desperate attempt to keep hold of him. Of the permanent returnees, some it could be argued did it for the impending end of their careers and another juicy transfer fee. Others have possibly felt an inflated estimation of their worth, egged on maybe by the now omnipresent Mr. 10%, and have returned to the bosom of their national squads not because of pride in a jersey, or representation of a home nation, but because a soft-hearted and large-walleted supporter has baled them out. For others, the return has been less than they may have hoped for - Alan Tait still awaits the call for his nation despite consistent club performances since his return, whilst others again, like John Gallagher may ironically be breathing a small sigh of relief that professionalism has offered a return to a code where they once were great but made the mistake of giving it all up for a game in which they arguably never coped.
Player loyalties have been split also in this new world; the England players have been mentioned already, but what of the Scots and Irish players in English clubs that have been unable to represent their divisions or provinces as they would have formerly done, because they are now playing in the same European competition and one party already holds the strings? Not to mention the player depletion within less affluent nations to England in particular, making it even harder to create a national strategy for already weaker national teams, not aided by clubs' resistance to players' absences for national team training camps.
Meanwhile while the clubs at the top go from strength to strength, those below are beginning to show the strains of trying to compete in a world where success is measured in £ signs and not tradition. Gloucester struggle year to year to remain in the frame, and it looks as if once mighty and feared Bristol are to finally succumb to the ignominy of relegation from the top flight. These clubs continue to see their top players tempted elsewhere, and their rising stars snaffled early. It is easy to see parallels between the Manchester Uniteds and the Mansfield Towns of this brave new Rugby world.
The men that have created this new dawn of rugby are different now also. Chief to the RFU vs. EPRUC row are the new chairmen - often ruthless businessmen that see rugby clubs at best as toys, and at worst as business opportunities. Do they have their clubs best interests at heart? Or their players? Or their club's supporters? Or merely their egos and (expected) bank accounts?
So much for the past, and the present. What for the future in this new professional era?
Undoubtably, the game at the very top level will continue to grow, and raise levels to new unprecedented heights. But not far below are the clubs that will maybe never return to that top drawer, or may even go under due to lack of funds or even players. Already some clubs are unable to meet their wage bills. Added to that, any young talent they have is very likely to leave before making any real impact, and as likely, being transferred for less than a large sum. Even those clubs at the top may be unlikely to keep up the high wages that are bandied around - the possible foolishness of inflated salaries for super stars that haven't performed, or are only available half of the season may eventually dawn upon those that hold the purse strings. Connected to this is the lack of positions brought in stars leave for rising talent. Clubs are already finding that important positions are having to be filled with players that have played only two first team friendlies this season, and now have to play Bath or Saracens in a week. In the entire English First Division there are only a few eligible English players playing at fly-half, a key position. Where will the international players of the future come from, while we are watching a host of South African, French and Antipodean stars on our playing fields every week?
And while those stars are playing every week, what of the length of their playing careers? Professionalism may mean the chance to devote their lives to the game, but they are surely finding the game is becoming a job. Congested fixture lists resulting in forty top level matches a year is no way to keep players at the top for a dozen years or more - twenty league matches, a dozen European Cup matches, ten Anglo-Welsh appearances, Pilkington Cup run, internationals, divisional matches. Too much? Maybe.
Further down the ladder the junior clubs soldier on as they ever did; down there the pressure is as high as ever to compete, especially as to maybe climb the ladder may lead to commercial success. Rumours abound at this level... Teams are paying their players £50 a game.... clubs are offering free beer to the 1st XV (I kid you not!!) .... some players are getting free cars/rent/mortgage... inevitably these rumours pan out to be exactly that. The club whose players were getting £50 a game actually provide a complete set of kit for 15 players plus subs every week. And take it back at the end of the game. The free beer was a one off paid for by an ex player that won some money. The free car/rent/mortgage never exists and never will. A clubmate of mine admitted that five years ago he was getting £50 a game for a club now in English national division four. Today, legally, it is unlikely that is any higher, if even that high - I know of a player and friend that was getting £25 a game at the start of this season for another national division four club, but that has probably dried up now due to a poor year on the field. The money simply isn't there. Or more to the point, it's all in a few places.
So, what of professionalism then? Its easy to be negative, and to pick out the problems. Some of those problems may have existed anyway, despite professionalism - the expanding fixture list almost definitely for a start, and possibly even the concentration of players to a handful of clubs. Professionalism had to happen anyway; the days of hypocrisy are now over, along with the agonizing soul searching that accompanied league offers, and the crass banishment of those that accepted filthy lucre. There is no doubt that the game now stands on the edge of a bright future, with the lessons of other sports already learnt.
But will rugby heed those lessons? Will rugby fail to make the mistakes others have made before them?
Only time will tell...