Rugby Special ?
Part 1 Murdoch moves for League
Part 2 The World Cup and the end of amateurism
Part 3 Television rules
In the first section of a three part look at modern rugby, Mike Bracken claims that the current World Cup in South Africa is only a shopfront for today's talent.....of any code of the game...
The following little anecdote is absolutely true. You may feel that the opening disclaimer is excessive, but if anyone made up this piece of sporting trivia, they would be automatically ejected from the pissed journalists club and be consigned to covering mundane events such as snooker and showjumping (neither of which this magazine recognise as sport ).
In the late 1980's, before Wigan RFC had established their total stranglehold of the game that we are now all too familiar with, local rivals St. Helens were pushing them strongly for both cup and league honours. As the battle for honours was increasingly reflected in the battle to sign up the most talented players, both clubs turned their attention to a player on the other side of the planet. Adrian Shelford, a bruising international forward from New Zealand was offered lucrative transfers from both clubs. Whilst St. Helens claimed to have signed the Kiwi giant, Wigan emphasised that his agent had pledged the players career to the current league holders.
Whilst this impasse continued over the summer, the player made his way to the north west of England for the first time. As the tension between the two clubs heightened, the battle for Shelfords signature reached the high court. The player, training with Wigan throughout late summer, kept his own counsel, as the hostility between these two famous rivals continued. Eventually the court came to a decision. Shelford was indeed a Wigan player.
St. Helens and Wigan, ten miles apart and with more in common than either would ever admit, are more than perennial rivals, as the pat commentators of the TV age would have us believe. Sharing between them such illustrious names as Murphy, Boston, Vollenhoven, Offiah and Hanley, to say that they have a keen sense of local pride would be similar to claiming that Serbs and Croats are undergoing a little local difficulties. The Shelford case only heightened the tension.
Now Shelford was no academic, and it was widely thought that he would have a great deal of difficulty in spelling his own name, not to mention the phrase 'contractual agreement'. Nevertheless, by the time that the annual Easter match came around, Wigan were about to claim the title of league leaders, and Shelford could look forward to claiming his first championship medal. However, Shelford had performed so poorly for Wigan throughout the season that some cynics wondered if the Central Park club would be better advised in appealing for a repeat hearing in the hope that St. Helens would win this time. Whatever, when 3pm arrived on Good Friday, a packed St. Helens ground was baying for blood. There was no room for neutrals. They had all been eaten after the hot dogs ran out.
Midway through the second half, with Wigan on their way to establishing a match winning lead, the unfortunate Shelford rampaged through the St. Helens back line. And it was then that it happened. Spontaneously, the Knowsley Road crowd of over 32,000 began chanting 'JUDAS.' On Good Friday, a man who had had to choose between signing for two almost identical dots on a map 12,000 miles from his home was being derided by both sets of fans for opposite reasons. And the depth of feeling that this sport, whose roots lay in the coal mines and anti-establishment sentiment of the late nineteenth century, engendered in its followers was plain to see. (This, I thought, would never be tolerated at Twickenham.)
Less than a decade later, the cream of English rugby league is heading in the opposite direction. Sky TV has effectively bought the English Rugby League, lock, stock and barrel. And it is widely thought that both St. Helens and Wigan will have to merge if they are to compete with the mighty clubs in the southern hemisphere. Rugby League has undergone a revolution. The second best attended sport in this country, celebrating its centenary this year and expanding away from its traditional Lancashire-Yorkshire axis rapidly, has sold its soul to TV.
renouf tackles shelford in the Wembley test
Now, many sports are entering a phase where they are tailoring their requirements around the needs of TV, but as an example of the all pervasive nature of the new power of broadcasters money, Rugby League is perfect. Around Easter this year, the chairmen of the RLFCs met at the Hilton, Huddersfield. What was to be a radical meeting to discuss switching to a summer season was hijacked by an outrageous bid by Sky TV. If the Rugby League agreed to reform itself into a Super League, with a reduced number of clubs following mergers between local rivals including Featherstone and Castleford, and Warrington and Widnes, then the game would receive £50m over 5 years. The uproar was understandable, but a compromise was eventually hammered out. The figure rose to £77m, lower division clubs would be paid off with £150,000 each, and each of the new premier clubs was set to receive £5.5m over five years. There was only one condition. The clubs had less than three days to agree to the deal.
For Rugby League, constantly attempting to increase gates in towns where the population was falling, and with many clubs nearly bankrupt trying to keep up with Wigan, who themselves had mortgaged their ground to the hilt in order to fund their lengthening wages bill, the money was too much. A Faustian pact was made with Murdoch, one which is still being worked over today. But it was not simply the speed of the deal and the ruthlessness of Sky TV that surprised observers, but the resulting events threw up some revealing situations.
Firstly, Rugby League players found themselves having to renegotiate their contracts all over again, but this time it was not a straight deal between club and player, this time the player had to select between League structures. In the UK, the new Super League was the only real choice, but by signing with Murdoch, the British RL had exposed the weaknesses in their relationship with the much more powerful Australian RL. In Australia, and especially Sydney, RL is akin to soccer here, and the game has long been in the charge of the ARL who prosper through their lucrative TV contracts with terrestrial channels such as Channel 9 and, more to the point, Kerry Packer. The long-standing agreements between the RLs in the two hemispheres that had seen transfers between them limited in order that the game should prosper on both sides of the world was now gone. The open market in players that followed meant that some of this country's finest were immediately lured to Australasia, where the game is mushrooming throughout New Zealand and beyond. Hanley, Platt, Clarke and Betts, all stalwarts of the British national team, booked their flights. As a result, the UK clubs new found wealth was being spent merely on tying players to their existing contracts. Gary Connolly received over £100,000, as did Chris Joynt and others. The money had gone in a spiral, from sponsor, to club to player, without the pass of a ball. Not one fan had been consulted, and the game was now well and truly beholden to TV.
Frank Keating, Matthew Engel and other commentators who should know better were quick to condemn the RL, but where the voices of the establishment were slow to spot the repercussions of the deal was in its effect on rugby union. Whilst I aim to examine this in more detail in the next issue, the one striking point regarding the current RU World Cup in South Africa has been the lack of any interest by the authorities in defections to Rugby League. Over 40 players have been approached by the RL, and some Welsh players including Mike Hall and Robert Jones have been actively looking for offers. As the tournament continues, the players will have little talk of defections, but with agents including Mike Burton and representatives of the ARL on vacation in the Cape, the summer looks set to bring a rash of approaches to players. Even Sheffield, one of the newer and less wealthy RL clubs has had the temerity to approach Jonah Lomu, the undisputed star of the tournament so far. What is for sure, is that Murdochs bid for League has sounded the death knell for amateurism in British Rugby Union, and upped the ante in financial terms in global Rugby League, thus making any Union player in the world a possible target.
Finally though, the deal has revealed the fickle and conservative nature of the British Rugby League fan. For decades they have endured sub standard stadia, disorganised administration and parochial planning. Only in the 1980's did the game come to life. Rule changes and an influx of foreign players made the game more attractive, and the traditional fierce but friendly crowds proved more welcoming than those at many soccer games. And whilst this expansion and increased entertainment was down to many aspects, it was symbolised by one man. Maurice Lindsey had turned Wigan from a demoralised division two outfit with a proud tradition into the undisputed world club champions. Pioneering an expansive style of attractive rugby, they more than anyone emphasised the new breed of Rugby League star: professional, supremely fit and talented. And Lindsey did not stop there. He took the game away from its traditional heartland, and did it successfully, as Sheffield are proof of. The marketing of the game means that top stars are now recognised globally, and Lindseys shrewd negotiations with the ARL did much to counter the imbalance between the hemispheric authorities. But even Lindsey could not solve the enduring problem facing the game. Many of the traditional clubs are located in towns that are shrinking. The aggregate weekly attendance stubbornly refused to rise over 80,000. The game was increasing in stature but the new fans were coming via TV, and they did not turn turnstiles. When Lindsey, a bookie by trade, was approached by Sky, he knew he had little choice. The man that formed modern Rugby League was seen by many to be doing the work of the devil, whilst precious few praised him with taking the game into the next millenia. Visionary or fool, the fans rarely considered the dilemma. They had just found their new Judas.
In the second of a three part review of the state of modern rugby, Mike Bracken argues that the game will inevitably merge into one code, and that all the current hullabaloo over the World Cup is obscuring the real point, that TV is king of rugby.......
And lo and behold, the mountain came to Murdoch. I had to think before opening this second article on modern rugby with an 'I told you so', but I did, and I'll quite happily give you my opinions before the event again, because the only people unable to spot the deleterious effect that Murdochs bid for Rugby League would have on the other code were those who are paid to know: the directors of the Rugby Football Union at Twickenham.
That the amateurism issue should still have any credence in the 1990s is due entirely to the prevailing attitudes of the RFU. Continuing a long period of dominance of both the British Union and the world body, the RFU had clung tenaciously to the theory of amateurism. That a player should not be paid to play was a touchstone of the British, and more particularly English, Union.
A century beforehand, the Rugby League had established itself over a similar issue, that of broken time reimbursement for miners who had to miss work in order to play the game. In establishing it's amateur ethos and sticking to it, Union embraced a notion of gentlemanly conduct that persisted in the professional classes: that to be paid to play was dishonourable and base, and that the spirit of the game transcended monetary values. Emboldened by a network of schools rugby and played at the top level by mostly professional classes (i.e., those that could afford to play for nothing), the game prospered. Money poured down through county union bodies, and the honour of representing country at Twickenham or even on tour was widely considered to be a reasonable payoff for the time devoted to the game.
Although movements to RL and hints of player discontentment prevailed, it was the late 1970s that ushered in the new direction that Union had to follow. Basically, three factors necessitated change. Firstly, other sports with an amateur ethos turned, lock, stock and barrel, professional. Tennis nearly destroyed itself for a decade in establishing itself as paid for entertainment. Kerry Packer prematurely showed cricket where it was heading, and the fame that television bestowed on Tony Jacklin and Arnold Palmer to name a few, emphasised that golf, the most gentlemanly of sports, was soon to be dominated by the marketing prowess of Mark McCormack and others. More 'common' sports, such as football, had been paying increasingly high rewards for over a decade, and Rugby League was about to enter a golden phase in its history, having adapted the 6 tackle rule and seen quickly that the game had to cater for a TV audience.
A second factor was television. Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett and David Duckham, famous union players of the 1970s were now as familiar as Cruyff, Jacklin and Nastase, but they were not getting paid, or so the story goes. Television, as the BBC and ITV are now finding out, has a fickle audience, and the marketing and promotion of sports personalities is a great leveller. It rapidly equates success with fame and fame with money, so clubs took to paying players with a nod and a wink. Boot money appeared, jobs were found for the right player and commercial success soon depended on which team a player played for. Amateurism had become shamateurism, and because, not in spite of, the fact that the game was opened up to a vast audience who could see the farcical state of the situation. And yet the RFU persisted. The system worked for the many who played club rugby, not the few at the top they argued, and they were right. Unfortunately, TV was not interested in screening the Old Estonian IVths.
Two Union teams provide interesting spectacle shocker!!
With the home unions still refusing to budge, the third and decisive factor came into force. The foreign unions, the upstart commonwealth nations that we were expected to trounce, began to embrace professionalism, unhindered by ties to the establishment, a cosy relationship with Auntie Beeb and the stuffy class system still prevalent in male dominated clubs. The shift of power had begun, and whilst the prolonged erosion of this system is interesting, the end result was that the 1995 World Cup was the breaking of shamateurism and the establishment of a new rugby dynasty, led by the southern hemisphere in combination with the giants of TV.
This years World Cup was a vibrant oxymoron. An undoubted commercial and professional success that exposed the obvious failures of a sport hindered by tradition. For South Africa as a nation, and for the southern hemisphere in general, it was a long awaited catharsis. For the northern nations and the whole structure of the game, an unmitigated disaster. Viewers with preconceived opinions of the merits of one code or another had their ideas smashed. Playing standards, New Zealand apart, were lamentable. If you doubt this, cast your mind back to the stage of the game against New Zealand when the English forwards, unable to play their mauling possession game, attempted to pass the ball to each other. Watching Johnson, Bayfield and Ubogu try to pass the ball, unchallenged, from only a few metres, was akin to watching a toddler approach a toilet for the first time. Compared with Zinzan Brooke's 40 metre drop goal, to describe the standard of playing skills between the two nations as cavernous is a gross understatement. At one point in the early stages of that match, the ITV commentator suggested that the type of rugby played by the All Blacks had never been seen before. It was, he opined, almost like......and then stopped himself. The running rugby championed by the All Blacks was similar to rugby league, and anyone with an ounce of objective sense knew it. It is no coincidence that Jonah Lomu, Frank Bunce and the Brookes were schooled at an early age in rugby league.
"Quick, get out of the way, it's a ball"
And yet New Zealand lost the tournament to South Africa, a triumph of commitment over flair, and that is entirely the result of the archaic rules of the game. Basically, 30 highly trained sportsmen on one pitch is too many. There is little space for creativity, the dozens of infringement rules mitigate against continuous play, as do the points ratio for tries to kicks. International referees have been quick to point out that rucks and mauls will become ungovernable in a professional game, as the added commercial inducements to players will lead to a recklessness that will be uncontrollable by one official. Many games were non- spectacles, the Ireland vs Wales game being the prime example. No amount of hype, OBEs, improved camera angles and informed discussion can change one basic fact: much of current rugby union matches are unappealing to watch, and that the game must make itself more of a spectacle to command the global audience that is needed to generate the money to keep players within the code. In effect, the 1995 World Cup presented the new governors of Union, from Louis Luyt to Lawrie Mains, with three stark choices.
Remaining in a its current state must seem appealing, especially given the commercial success of the event. But to do this presupposes that audiences will remain loyal to the code. The new wealth of Rugby League, especially in Australasia with the emergence of new clubs such as the Auckland Warriors and Western Reds, will enable them to cherry-pick the best players, as the All Blacks are finding out as Leeds RL tempt Lomu with a reputed £2m deal. Not to change would undoubtedly be the choice of the northern hemisphere, but that would soon change as the transfer markets between clubs spiral, and clubs become dependent on turning turnstiles. In England, only Bath, Leicester and a few other clubs would be confident of commercial success unless the money generated at international level is moved away from youth level and channelled straight to the new system of leagues.
The second, and most unlikely choice, is that Union will go further along the lines of structured play, and adapt totally for television. Already set plays, possession time and strategic kicking dominate. It only requires a few law changes and modified breaks for commercials before Union becomes the poor relation to American Football. After the performances by the All Blacks and France did so much to enliven a pedestrian tournament, this option would surely be the least popular with supporters, and further highlight the openness of league.
Which leaves the long term option, a unified code. Abhorrent to many in both codes, this was long inconceivable from the games centre at Twickenham. But given that the death of shamateurism in the home unions will inevitably lead to open transfers between codes, and that it is unlikely that TV in the southern nations will relish the regular trouncing of their northern opponents, this option will become increasingly attractive. The number of reasons for its adoption is growing rapidly: open access to both codes for leading players; the shambolic level of competition in both codes that mitigates against a really worthwhile World Cup until the semi-final stages; the crossover of sponsors between codes; the changing aspect of union as it becomes more like league; and TV.
In the short term, both codes are likely to undergo an internal examination. League in England is still adapting to a short season and the crossover to a summer season, while in Australasia the split between the ARL and the Super League has yet to be resolved. England RFU is still licking its wounds, as the old farts say goodbye to Dudley Wood and a new era of professionalism is creeping in. The South African RFU have already had one walkout over money, even persuading Louis Luyt to cough up some more rand. New Zealand are desperately trying to keep hold of their All Blacks by throwing money all over the place, and Australia have confirmed the degree of professionalism in their ranks by dropping their highest paid player, David Campese, who by his own account was a millionaire at 23, and that in an amateur game.
But when this period of dislocation is over, the scene will be ripe for unification. Players as mercenary as today's soccer stars will compete for ludicrous contracts. Club rugby league will be the highest paid code, and the movement to summer seasons will see the end of traditional fixtures including Lions tours and State of Origin matches. No-one will be playing or viewing without paying, and as the audience is global and probably on a pay per view basis, the amount they pay will be significant. Both codes will be governed by new organisations, the Super League in League and a southern based authority in Union. Both of these have already signed with Murdoch.
What an adorable mascot!
So the spark for this chain of events stems from television and money. During the last Kangaroo tour to the UK, Australia ARL boss Ken Arthurson had to fly back to Sydney because two clubs needed to merge because the pot of sponsorship from which they both drunk was running dry, and Murdoch had shown some interest. Following this, the meeting at the Huddersfield Hilton saw League take £77m in return for the game, and how the RFU laughed. Six months later, and with the World Cup having exposed the deficiencies of the organisation and playing of Union in the northern hemisphere, the RFU stands exposed as the southern unions have already signed a deal worth five times more. Television and money is the start and finish point for the unification of rugby, and for every 'Judas' collecting his silver coins, there is a prospective punter with a satellite dish.
In the final part of his review of modern day rugby, Mike Bracken looks at where the power will lie when the dust settles...
The recent coverage, on the BBC news, of that 'momentous' International Rugby Union Board meeting in Paris began thus: "Vernon Pugh, the man who brought professionalism to Rugby Union...". Pugh no more brought professionalism to Union than I brought the Internet to your PC. I arrived on the net, and Pugh arrived on the back of professionalism.
The transfer of power from archaic home unions, through the southern unions and effectively onto the TV barons, has been a particularly sad display of face saving. From the unions down to the players, the whole phoney exercise in the 'switch' to professionalism has been a comprehensive exercise in amnesia. The simple truth is that rugby union is controlled by television, and the pontificating of players and officials alike is a last ditch attempt at repositioning in order to give some veneer of authority to the financial lottery that the sport has become.
Ironically, it is the attempt by one media baron to wrest control of the game from another that has forced the issue, and it is that same attempt that the unions are presenting to the public in an attempt to convince them that they still retain control of the game.
Briefly, what has happened since the World Cup is this. Murdoch announced his take-over of Rugby League in the UK, with the new Super League than starting to bid for control of Australian RL, the wealthiest organisation in any code. Fearing their position as tied to the northern unions, representatives of the southern rugby unions signed a £360 million deal with Murdoch, guaranteeing him the rights to all internal club and international fixtures within the hemisphere. Typically, the administrators had not sought out the players opinions, instead signing them up with Murdoch for fear of mass defections to RL.
At that point, rival media baron Kerry packer announced his bid for Rugby Union in the southern hemisphere. Already usurped in Australia by Murdochs Super League which threatened Packers TV control of the league code, Packer was adamant that Murdoch should not control both codes. Packers proposed World Rugby Corporation quickly set about the players, targeting the victorious South Africans by promising them around £175,000 per man. However, the southern hemisphere players, led by the South Africans, are a lot more ruthless when it comes to finances than their northern counterparts. They quickly asked Packer to put his money where his very sizeable mouth was, and when the rand didn't arrive, turned to SARFU, their union.
Headed by Louis Luyt, a South African Bernard Manning with a tendency to use the royal prerogative when talking of South African rugby, SARFU arranged a meeting with the players, where they told the World Cup winning players what they were worth, where, and when they would play in future. The players, many of whom had already signed with Packers fledgling circus, effectively held their own union to ransom. Threatening walk outs and defections to league, they secured £140,000 per man from the deal that SARFU had accepted from Murdoch, and in that one deal highlighted rugby's new pecking order. Television set the agenda, the players chose between limited options, and the unions followed meekly, trying to make out they had engineered the deal all along.
This is not to suggest that Luyt and SARFU are walkovers. Luyt, remember, was the architect of bringing the World Cup to Africa, as well as initially tempting Murdoch into the deal. What the SARFU/Murdoch situation shows is that the television money has made the players, not the unions, the holders of power. Given this balance of power, the goings on in Paris were nothing more than pure slapstick.
The Chairman of the Welsh union, Vernon Pugh, guided an apparently volatile IRB meeting right through the issue of amateurism, sweeping away the last ace in the house of cards that the RU had built around amateurism for a decade. Although he apparently handled the meeting tactfully, the myopic reaction of the press was to praise him with removing amateurism overnight. He had done little more than sweep up the broken plates after Murdoch had been let loose in the china shop. To highlight the absolute lack of choice facing the IRB, other than to turn fully professional, it is important to remember that representatives of the southern unions were present, and that they had already concluded their deal with Packer. But, never forgetting the ability of the English to play the Colonel Blimp role, the whole charade was acted out for the benefit of the media.
Prior to the Paris meeting, the English board held their own AGM in July, the minutes of which make interesting reading given the much publicised events taking place in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Departing President Dennis Easby, Will Carlings nominated 'old-fart', gave a speech of remarkable hypocrisy. Given the following statements, it is easy to see why the home unions have got themselves into such a mess regarding amateurism.
After highlighting the importance of a recent award for 'sports sponsorship' in the first sentence, he then goes on to claim that 'no player should be paid for playing the game nor should a player receive other than legitimate expenses. Outside that they may earn and obtain material benefit provided they do not encroach on their own Unions commercial arrangements.' Or translated, 'we're coining it, but it's not right for the chaps to get any wedge, but they can blag some dosh so long as it doesn't stop our pennies rolling in.' Rather like Arthur Daley after elocution lessons.
The hallmark of amateurisms nobility!
Just for good measure, Easby then throws off a few blasts at those money mad charlatans, the RL. 'Murdochs..contract with the RL injected much needed cash into an ailing organisation, but at what price...Rugby League to be transferred to the summer months with all the emphasis on satisfying the Southern Hemisphere viewers.' Although he went on to highlight the effect that the Murdoch bid for RU had had on the southern unions, Easby had effectively given a first hand example of how the RU think. By disclaiming the Murdoch deal with RL as a sop to the fans (imagine, a sport taking decisions driven by the requirements of its supporters) Easby highlighted the ignorance of the Murdoch deal. It was not aimed at southern RL watchers (given the choice of Manly in the heat or Whitehaven in the sleet, I know who I'd watch), nor aimed at moving the game to a summer season (this was already virtually agreed within league) but it was aimed directly at the Northern Rugby home Unions. It was an attempt to force the pace of the inevitable - professionalism - but as Easby could not recognise the inevitable, how was he to know the Murdoch deal was aimed at his organisation?
Before handing over to new President and soon to be Pughs whipping boy Bill Bishop, there was an amusing little cameo performance from treasurer Peter Bromage. Despite the usual platitudes, his speech gave away one of the basic problems facing the move to professionalism. After highlighting the efficiency of the new ticket sales procedure at Twickenham, Bromage highlighted two financial statistics. '..in the revenue account the total surplus [is] £3,825,722......[and] the balance sheet will include an item cash in hand and at the bank of nearly £11.5 million.' As an afterthought, the treasurer of the amateur RU had revealed that there was over £14m swilling about in the bank, and that with Twickenham already built and paid for.
Remember, when Luyt signed the SARFU deal with Murdoch, he looked forward optimistically in to the future in the hope that the deal would generate up to £3m for development of rugby in black Africa. Back in the UK, the treasurer of the home union was casually referring to nearly five times that amount in the petty cash. Not only does the utter arrogance of the shamateurists at Twickenham reveal the disregard they hold for all those who play the game for no reward, but it reflects their inability to accept the paradigm shift that rugby union as a whole must take - professionalism.
To emphasise the difference between north and south, it is illuminating to examine who each organisation are answerable to. Luyts SARFU needs to liaise with a solid players union, gain maximum revenue from TV while attempting to retain control of the game, and still provide accountability to the paying public. The English RFU, on the other hand, presented its annual report to a selection of clubs including Combined London Old Boys, Falmouth Colts, Guanos Invitation, Hucclecote Old Boys, Old Tiffinians, Upper Clapton and NCO's Tactical Wing School of Infantry. (Honestly, I'm not making these names up.) With £14million in the bank, I know who I'd rather be accountable to.
Towards the end of his speech, Bromage innocently used a faux pas that as an explanation of the patronising nature of his RFU can not be bettered. 'The RFU is the equivalent of a middle sized PLC. It handles very large sums of money indeed. Much, much greater than shown in the financial statements as we do not show ..the sponsorship monies.' In this capitalistic world, I have never heard of a single sizeable company that does not show its full accounts, readily admits to being loaded, and stubbornly refuses to pay even their star employees!!
However revealing their antics, the English RU are now well down the pecking order, behind TV, the players, the powerful southern unions. With their raison d'etre, control of the world game, removed, the mandarins at Twickenham will be picked apart by players, officials, the demanding crowd and a huge armchair audience. The media in the northern hemisphere will have a field day, as the true nature of the shamateur years will unfold, and the freedom offered to players will see both codes lose players and therefore compete against each other. Although twickers represents money in the bank, not even the RU can generate the salaries that top players demand, and with the exception of Bath, Leicester and possibly Harlequins, the clubs can not possibly generate enough money through the turnstiles to stay afloat.
Already, the Leicester secretary John Allen has resigned because he can recognise the futility of an amateur structure attempting to compete on a professional level. Leicester, incidentally, won lasts years League and are the best supported club in England. David Sole, the ex Scotland captain, recently commented that there would be one unified game of rugby within years. Whether his pronouncement becomes reality sooner rather than later, one thing is for sure. The present goings on in both codes are the first shots across each others bows. When the TV audience reaches a critical mass, it will become a case of 'pay up, pay up, and play the game!'
Everywhere, the side effects from the professionalism decision are apparent. Wales' recent debacle in South Africa demonstrated the failure that has been the Heineken League, with the cream of the Welsh players at two or three clubs, and their £20,000+ per year from the Welsh RU the only compensation for a miserable World Cup and a mauling by the Springboks. Also in that game, Wiese, a Springbok forward, flattened an opponent off the ball and will be punished after a TV lead hearing. He earns over £150,000 annually from playing union. And the English RU still believe that the amateur ethos will prevail on the field!
In League, the English centenary has gone down with a whimper thanks to the truncated season and rumours of steroid abuse, while Australian team for the forthcoming World Cup comprises only those loyal to the ARL, freezing out Murdochs Super League players. As New Zealand club rugby league attracts players from both codes and all countries, already bosses at club sides in league and union are bemoaning the new money and the change in power relations it has brought.
The dust is settling, and only when Union organises its international system of fixtures and league co-ordinates its seasons and tours, will the two games find their distinct niches. Although their rules separate them at present, the merger of the two is inevitable, ironically for many reasons - rule changes, refereeing, youth development, freedom of players movement, etc. -and yet for one. Digital television.
By the time the next World Cup comes round, you won't be seeing this for free.
Both Murdoch and Packer plan to expand digitally. The vast base of global decoder owners and satellite users demand choice, and 64 channels through one cable link is more than enough. Given a huge rise in the prospective viewing market, their is a conspicuous absence of talent. If you're not sure, watch England RU against Argentina from the last World Cup, or better still the Wales Ireland game, or even the early rounds of the upcoming RL World Cup. With club sides like Widnes and Warrington, or Bath and Bristol already drawing from a small local base, the requirements of TV will go a long way beyond the mergers already proposed for Rugby League in both hemispheres.
Last year, Sky proposed that the jewel in their crown, Premiership football, should utilise digital TV and every match should be covered live and be accessible via pay per view. Although not supported by the Premiership authorities, this is undeniably the future for TV sport, as Frank Bruno fans or those hoping to watch the Ryder Cup after this year will testify. To present global, comprehensive coverage of rugby, TV will demand one homogeneous product, like football, corresponding seasons, like football, and an increase in choice for the consumer, ie, more games. To satisfy any or all of these demands, the two codes must come together.
For some Rugby related sites, files, pics and videos click here and for a video of the Gareth Edwards at Cardiff Arms Park in 1973 click here
Laadeees and Geeeennnelllmeenn!!!!!...
Nigel Benn vs Vincenso Nardiello London Arena
Boxing, that most noble yet brutal of sports, has produced some of the finest ever sportsmen. Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Jake La Motta have all been portrayed in film, whilst showmen of the category of Ali, Duran, Hagler and McGuigan needed no lessons in media presentation. All skilful champions, these and the thousands of others to follow them into the ring have improved their finances by reaping the rewards of television, not just fighting for a purse. Although their fighting prowess does not make fighters necessarily virtuous, the people in charge of boxing, and also behind the lucrative TV deals, make them appear angelic by comparison.
As an example of the power of television and the manipulation of fighters to bump up TV purses, the Nardiello - Benn fight is as good as any. The pay off for becoming champion, this fight was Nigel Benns first, and very lucrative, defence of the WBC super-middleweight championship he had won so heroically the preceding February against Gerald MacClennan. That Benn had the fight won in six rounds, Nardiello refusing to fight on after Benn had knocked lumps off him for the previous fifteen minutes, was no surprise. What was surprising, in this bout that had a relatively small audience and television rights, was the incongruity contained in the programme.
Typically, boxing programmes are filled with statistics about all the fighters on the card and a smattering of local advertising. Since the audience is relatively small, the major advertisers choose to spend their money on the TV coverage, leaving the print advertising to local car dealers and sports shops. Although this gives the programme a slightly amateurish feel, there is one man who is not going to let anyone forget the international fame that boxing bestows.
Don King, unrivalled promoter, takes two pages of the programme to remind us just how important he is. As well as constant allusions to his cable TV tie in, there are numerous other feats that he has had a hand in and he thinks we ought to know about....
The first promoter to guarantee boxers $5m - Foreman vs Ali in the rumble in the jungle The first promoter to guarantee a $10m purse - Sugar Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran 1981 The first promoter to establish own TV network - the Don King Sports and Entertainment Network First and only promoter to put 6 world title bouts on one show - 'Unfinished Business' 1994
It goes on and on, but in the biography (hagiography) there is a slightly different story. 'How did a ghetto kid from Cleveland rise to such world fame and fortune?' it asks. After reminding us that Don was 'a product of the streets' and that he has a 'strong faith in God', we are told that his mother 'taught him the difference between right and wrong.' All very well it is too but there are certain people that would dispute Don's (The Only Man In America) version. Tim Witherspoon for one, who complained, like many other boxers, of not being paid by the great man. Or what of the man King kicked to death on those 'streets' in his earlier years.
But all this is fatuous. Boxing is fought by mainly honest but limited men, and promoted by the grasping and hard faced. A 'good, clean fight' is hard to come by these days, and these two pages of turgid self-idolatry only expose the contradiction that top level boxing represents. The rest of the programme is informative, colourful, interesting and though provoking, but for illumination of how a sport conducts itself it can't match Dons column.
The Brochure Rating System:
***** 'I am the greatest'
**** 'Could have been a contender
*** Stings like a butterfly
** Raging Dull
* Where's 'Arry?
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