On 26 August, 1995, two months after the Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park, representatives from the nations comprising the International Rugby Football Board (now World Rugby) met at a Parisian hotel adjacent to the opera to decide the future of rugby union.
Rugby union had remained an amateur sport to that point. But that hadn’t stopped it from becoming big business. The world's top players were household names and the demands on their time ever-increasing. But they were getting no financial rewards. Something had to give.
For three days the talk around the table from the game’s leading decision-makers had been about tenners not tenors – despite the location – as rugby union reached a crossroads on the subject of professionalism.
Sticking with amateurism was not a viable option for the majority given the increasingly steady flow of rugby union players to rugby league and the very real threat of private commercial organisations contracting the world’s best players. To some die-hards, though, the thought of paying players was just as unpalatable as it had been 100 years before, when the ‘Great Schism’ occurred and the 13-man code was formed in the row over broken-time payments.
With the sport’s landscape changing before their very eyes, former World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset recalled how speed was of the essence.
“I think the most striking thing is how all the nations contributed to move forward quickly in a new system. It was very hard and very complicated for some nations. But quickly we found solutions that allowed us to have the best players, to have stars who began to be recognised by the media,” said Lapasset, who had not long succeeded Vernon Pugh.
The seeds of the transformation, however, had been sown 12 months earlier by his predecessor.
“We created an ‘amateurism committee’ the year before to define the legal foundations of our work. As a top lawyer as well as IRB Chairman at the time, Vernon knew rugby and the legal system inside and out and he drafted the changes, which became the legal foundations for the transformation of the game. He always sought to find solutions which allowed us to move forward toward professionalism, while respecting the foundations and values of the sport.
“We held meetings over the course of the year to work through the detail, and we met in Paris to make the final decision.
“The unanimous vote of the whole IRB Council was required. We couldn’t have a single country not respecting the rules.
“We prepared a draft which was subject to a vote, item by item: Players’ status, nations, clubs, provinces, referees, the structure of competitions, a remuneration system.
“We put all the items on the table to find a solution that would allow us to be united.”
UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL
Like many of his peers in the media, British rugby journalist Peter Jackson had been following developments closely. Seemingly well aware of the significance of the Paris meeting, Jackson travelled to the French capital to report on the ground. What he didn’t anticipate as well, however, was the outcome of it.
“I was there that day at the Hotel Ambassador on Boulevard Haussman in Paris and we weren't quite prepared for it,” Jackson retold. “It was patently clear that the game should go professional, or should go open to give it its proper title, but none of us really believed that the international board would have the bottle to actually go and do it, and to their credit, however belatedly, they did it in one fell swoop.”
The sport that had helped unite a nation only a couple of months earlier at Rugby World Cup 1995 was now taking a protective approach given interest from private entities.
“Significantly, in the background, there were private companies that were pushing and were ready to buy players, to make them sign contracts, to play in private competitions. This was a danger for us that we had to address for the good of the game,” stressed Lapasset.
“There was a vote and everyone voted in favour of the change. It was painful, but we had to move to this important milestone, it was the time to do so. And I don’t think anyone today regrets the game going open.”
In 25 years of professionalism rugby union has become not just a game for the player but truly a game for all. Rugby World Cup is now billed as the third biggest sporting event on the planet; the latest and most successful edition to date, Japan 2019, generated a record £4.3 billion in economic output and has inspired 2.25 million new rugby participants in Asia.
One thing has remained the same throughout, though: rugby’s soul. “Despite all these changes, we have kept the same values: ‘character-building values’,” Lapasset stated. “This has been the reality of the game since the start and this is even truer today.”
The history behind the momentous decision can be discovered at the World Rugby Hall of Fame in Rugby, England. Admission is free but advanced booking is essential. Please visit www.world.rugby/halloffame for more information.