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An open game: The story of how rugby union turned professional
We take a look at the events leading up to Vernon Pugh’s historic announcement in Paris, 25 years ago.
The final weekend of June 1995 was a big one for world rugby. New Zealand, with a young Jonah Lomu in their backline, were due to take on hosts South Africa in the last Rugby World Cup final of the amateur era.
All eyes were on Ellis Park in Johannesburg, where Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar would take centre stage, but much of the pre-match talk surrounded a momentous pronouncement.
On the eve of the final it had been announced that the three traditional powerhouses of southern hemisphere rugby, Australia, New Zealand and RWC 1995 hosts, South Africa had agreed a US$550 million deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
The 10-year agreement gave News Corp. exclusive television rights to an annual Tri-Nations international tournament, a Super 12 club competition and all inbound test tours to the three countries.
Given the sums involved, the deal pushed union ever closer to the open era, and a decision that had looked increasingly inevitable since the inaugural Rugby World Cup raised awareness, and the commercial attractiveness, of the game in 1987.
Meanwhile, admiring glances were being made towards the stars of RWC 1995 from rugby league clubs in both hemispheres, and a further threat to amateurism came in the shape of a potential breakaway competition, the World Rugby Championship (WRC).
Led by former Wallaby prop, Ross Turnbull, and financially backed by Kerry Packer, WRC needed 900 players to staff its proposed 30 franchises worldwide. According to Huw Richards’ book, ‘A Game For Hooligans’, 407 signatures had been collected by early August.
“The unanimous vote of the whole IRB Council was required. We couldn’t have a single country not respecting the rules."— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) August 26, 2020
Today marks 25 years since Rugby Union turned professional, read the account of the meeting that decided the future of the game.https://t.co/A0e4n9h3Mt
Richards writes that Rugby World Cup-winning coach, Kitch Christie urged Springbok players to turn down WRC and back their union “for the team, for the country, for yourselves and for what you’ve already achieved”.
“I believe the Packer proposal would have got off the ground, there was just too much money in the game for it to have not got off the ground,” former Springbok Hennie Le Roux said.
“What would have happened after that would have been an interesting debate. But I think it would have thrown rugby in serious turmoil.”
Ultimately, strong action taken by the unions headed off the threat of the WRC, but professionalism was at the top of the agenda when the International Rugby Football Board (now World Rugby) met in Paris between 24-26 August, 1995.
“Whether or not we promote it, the game will be openly professional within a very short space of time,” former World Rugby Chairman, Vernon Pugh argued. “If we do not participate in, and direct and control, that change, the IRB and the unions as we know them may no longer be running the game.”
An open game
Following three days of tense discussion, and almost exactly 100 years after the ‘Great Schism’ that split rugby into two codes, Pugh declared that union would become “an open game”.
As a result of their agreement with News Corp. the big three southern hemisphere unions were able to sign their best players to central contracts.
But, while England international Mike Catt became the game’s first fully professional player, the situation in the northern hemisphere was a little less straightforward.
However, whether being paid by a union or a club, professionalism ensured the world’s top players could dedicate more of their time to the game.
“Getting paid was fantastic, it meant you could create a life outside of the normal nine to five,” former Wallaby Matt Burke said.
“But with that came so much more responsibility as well, and the increase in coaching that coaches basically said, ‘well we’ve got you now, we can train you from nine to five basically every day’.
“And that was a difficult time for some people. Some people couldn’t handle that.”
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In the quarter of a century since Pugh declared the game open, rugby has grown immeasurably. As the table above shows, in that period ball-in-play time in international men’s rugby has increased by almost 50 per cent, while the average male player is four kilograms heavier as advances in strength and conditioning have been made.
Advancements have also been made in the use of technology and with regards to player welfare, with efforts made to understand concussion and its causes better, while making scrums and tackling safer.
"It is a physical game, but we believe it is safer now than it has ever been, despite the number of collisions which have increased dramatically. It is a safer game because we understand the dangers better than we did in recent years,” World Rugby Chief Executive Brett Gosper told the BBC this week.
“I think the game will be simpler and safer [in the future]. I think that will be the evolution. A safer, simpler sport as we go forward is the direction of travel.
"Our job is to make it a spectacle, but in the best possible way, as safe as possible for the players, at the elite level and the community level.”
A timeline of professionalism
- 1995: Game is declared open, Mike Catt becomes first fully professional player. First yellow card awarded, while European Cup and Super Rugby established.
- 1996: Tactical substitutions permitted (up to three).
- 2000: World Rugby Awards launched.
- 2001: TMO introduced
- 2006: World Rugby Hall of Fame launched.
- 2007: Rugby Ready launched, with more than 500,000 completions since then.
- 2009: Japan awarded Asia's first Rugby World Cup. Rugby Sevens included in Olympic programme. Crouch, Touch, Bind, Engage scrum engagement sequence introduced.
- 2012: HIA implementation (known as PSCA).
- 2013: Crouch, Bind, Set scrum engagement sequence implemented.
- 2015: Hawkeye technology debuts at RWC, speeds up TMO process.
- 2016: Rugby Sevens makes Olympic Games debut in Rio.
- 2017: Simplified law book published. World Rugby Women in Rugby 2017-25 Plan introduced, record-breaking women's Rugby World Cup in Ireland.
- 2018: World Rugby Council expanded, 35 per cent of members women.
- 2019: Record-breaking RWC in Japan: 2.04bn video views, £4.3bn economic impact, 2.2 million new participants. High tackle sanction framework debuts, 28 per cent reduction in concussion at RWC 2019.
READ MORE: Bill Beaumont on 25 years of professional rugby >>