Europe counts cost of war
Unions face expensive battle to keep factions on same side, writes Brendan Fanning
In late March 1995 Kerry Packer, then Australia's richest man, found his empire under assault from Rupert Murdoch, another fella not exactly short of a few bob. The prize was the growing and lucrative pay per view television market in that country, and the battleground was rugby league.
Packer had the rights to Australia's national rugby league competition, the premier product on tv then. So rather than wait for it to come back on the market a few years down the line, Murdoch went and created his own. That's how Super League was born.
Overnight, players were delighted to be offered vastly improved salaries to jump ship. News of the exodus forced a stunned Packer into alternative mode, and fast. He had a long consult with his business advisers, one of whom had a lifelong involvement in rugby union. A new plan was hatched. rugby league may have been, and still is, a hugely popular sport in Australia, but when you looked across the world it was hard to find other countries who even knew what it was, let alone had any interest in it. Its long lost brother, however, was a different matter. Rugby union had a presence in a different stratosphere. And that would become Packer's new goal. There was a new game in town.
Peter Fitzsimons's excellent The Rugby War documents that fraught period. Published in 1996, we took it down off the shelf last week to remind ourselves of its relevance to what is unfolding now in Europe. For five frantic months in '95 a battle was fought across Australia, New Zealand and South Africa for the signatures of the top players in a sport which at that stage was still amateur, despite its discrete inducements. Packer wanted these players to join his new World Rugby Corporation; their parent unions on the other hand were scrambling into the world of professionalism with contracts of their own, a task they were neither suited to nor enthusiastic about.
Driven by the prospect of losing control of a game they had grown up with, the unions won out, by the skin of their teeth. To seal the victory, Rupert Murdoch then waded in with the wedge for a whole new competition – Super Rugby – to give them something to be going on with, and to wipe Kerry Packer's other eye.
The mantra at the time was simple: he who controls the players controls the competitions. In that order. And it is as true today was it was back then.
While the battle raged in the southern hemisphere, at this end of the world weapons hadn't even been loaded. It wasn't until the IRB's Paris meeting in August 1995, when it became clear that you couldn't have the same game being pro on one side of the equator and amateur on the other, that the issue got everyone's attention. So the game went open across the world.
In this country the IRFU pretended for a few years that it hadn't really happened before eventually giving contracts to 25 players, tying them to the union. Across the water meantime, where a stack of Irish players had gone in search of fame and fortune, the (English) RFU were making our lot look prescient. They just sat back and let the clubs fill the vacuum with whatever they could find. Enter the benefactor.
Rob Smith was Wasps coach at the time. He was agitating for the RFU to give contracts to 200 players on £25k contracts. He admits his main concern was his own club, which he feared would be left behind, which is not to say that the idea was unsound in any case.
"Quite honestly I was desperate at the time and my aim was to keep Wasps at the top of the game," he says. "And the only way I could see of doing that was if the RFU had control over the players. I remember Rob Andrew coming to me and saying he'd had an offer from Newcastle and I said: 'Look Rob, don't worry, we'll put something together.' And he said: 'The money he's offering me is more than your total budget!'
"At the time I had conversations with the then RFU president and I was telling him that I knew what was going on, on the floor. I was at the grass roots and I could see they [RFU] were going to lose control very quickly. I think they just wanted to sit back and examine all the implications, but if they had acted then we wouldn't be having this conversation now."
The legacy of that inaction is a club game at war with the unions in the shape of PRL from England and LNR from France versus ERC from the establishment.
The last week has illustrated the widespread insecurities and fears about where it is all going. For example, Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson was quoted along the lines that if the English and French clubs were going into pastures new then he hoped they'd leave a gate open.
You could see where he was coming from, but it was impossible not to read the quote without hearing a rumble that wasn't the DART coming from Lansdowne Road. Philip Browne, IRFU chief exec and a man more agitated than normal these days, was wearing out his shoes toeing the party line, and then one of his provincial managers makes cooing noises to the opposition?
It got better on Wednesday. On the off-chance that IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset might like to give some clarity to Big Brother's position on the uprising of its underlings, we gave his office a ring. No, Bernie was keeping schtum. Bretty Gosper however was clearing his throat.
The IRB's chief exec has embraced social media in the way ducks paddle into the nearest pond. He has built a high profile for himself and we were waiting to see if he had a contribution, even though he is only the hired help, unlike Lapasset who is an elected decision-maker.
Indeed he did. When asked on radio what the IRB would do if both the English and French unions gave the go-ahead to their clubs to start up a new cross border competition, Gosper said he didn't think the IRB would stand in their way. Ya wha?
There is a big yellow post-it, marked regulation 16.2, on the fridge in the IRB's kitchen in Huguenot House on Stephen's Green, which says that you can't set up a new gig with clubs from another jurisdiction without both unions giving it the thumbs up. And then the IRB council have to sign off on it. On the face of it then Gosper's reply seems reasonable enough. Given the times we live in however, where every utterance is being parsed for hidden meaning, this sounded like a game-changer.
Later that day the IRB issued a statement that was back on message, going on about the need for retaining a pan-European competition. Take a break there Brett.
The reality is that PRL and LNR would have to move a mountain to get the approval of their unions to run off and do their own thing. If their resolve is such that they are willing to elope altogether then the logistics of running a cross border competition would be a challenge. Who would referee the games? Refs who, unlike the players, are all on central contracts?
So entrenched are the positions now that we might end up with a year in limbo, where the Premiership extends to 14 clubs and the Top 14 goes to 16, something which Serge Blanco is agitating for – not unrelated perhaps to the predicament of his beloved Biarritz who are struggling. And during that season, when Pro12 rugby would have to extend its programme to fill the hole, the longing to get back to European rugby would focus minds.
Either that, or the mediated meeting next month will somehow produce something more positive. ERC are getting it in the neck for picking a point in the distance for this showdown, but even if they sorted it way back you'd wonder if PRL – for whom the dismantling of ERC is their line in the sand – would have been more enthusiastic about attending.
Their position remains unchanged: they won't be showing up. So either mediator Graeme Mew will hear the phone ring out when he dials Mark McCafferty's number, or PRL's front man will have a sudden and unlikely change of heart.
If it's the former then we have some chance of European rugby next season. Alternatively we're looking at limbo land for 2014/15. Either way, you look back to that open window in the 12 months after the summer of '95 and wonder how healthy the game might be now if the RFU had crawled through it and rounded up the boys.