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Tuesday, January 31, 2006


General Discussions: Cherish the past

Rugby union was once a very simple thing. It was not just a sport. It was a statement about life. Not a profound one, but an uncomplicated declaration that you could get quietly hammered on Friday night, play a very ordinary game of rugby the following afternoon (not being overly bothered about the result) and go back to work on Monday morning, bruised but much happier.

By: Kevin Mitchell
Source: The Observer

Bill Beaumont remembers those days. 'Even in this era of professionalism,' he says, 'rugby is 95 per cent still like that. It's still about the clubs.'

He treasures his association with the Fylde club in Lancashire, from where he launched a career that brought him 34 England caps, 21 as captain, a couple of Lions tours, England's first grand slam in 23 years, and, after early retirement at 29 because of mounting injuries, a television career on A Question of Sport that made him the first easily recognised rugby player in the land.

So why, I ask, has a game so rooted in good times been racked by so many divisive rows since it went professional in the mid 1990s? It is a question with an obviously in-built answer, probably, but Beaumont, one of nature's optimists, is not disposed to agree that the ongoing row between the Premiership clubs and the Rugby Football Union is insoluble or that money always rules.

The clubs are suing the RFU for the £500,000 they say they are owed in compensation for resting players preparing for international duties. The RFU say they were entitled to end the Long Form Agreement last October because the clubs had not abided by their demands and that the wording was too woolly. It seems a daft, nit-picking and self-serving row.

And two of the high-profile protagonists are Beaumont and Peter Wheeler, team-mates in all but two of Beaumont's internationals. Wheeler, as chief executive at Leicester, is among the many club leaders furious with the RFU, where Beaumont resides on the management board and represents them also on the International Rugby Board.

'Peter threw it in and I caught it,' says Beaumont. 'We have been the best of team-mates, friends off the field and, I hope, can still talk about our differences. I know Pete wants his Leicester players doing well for the club but doing well for England, too.'

But they can't get this worked out that simply. Not with lawyers hovering. Stories during the week suggested the RFU were going to back down and settle. Beaumont doesn't think so. He believes ultimately it will be settled in court, but would rather they could do it the old-fashioned way, over a pint.

'We just have to sit down and talk with a clean sheet of paper,' he says. 'We can't live without each other. England need a vibrant club competition that is producing top-quality, England-qualified players. We have to maybe look at promotion and relegation again, to give the clubs the assurance they won't go down for a couple of seasons. It's surely the only way. Sit around with each other and work out a tripartite agreement, to get the programme right so England can put out the very best team and get back to where we were in 2003.

'We have taken two steps back and one step forward. But it's getting better. The signs are there. England have to have that strut about them again. We had the best second-row in the world, and without a doubt the best captain I've ever seen in Martin Johnson. Singleminded, tough, uncompromising and, in the heat of battle, he made the right decision. And he didn't have to say much. We've got to recapture that.'

The reality is the clubs don't want to rest star players with sell-out crowds pouring into their grounds for Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup European games. Who can blame them? Beaumont says there has to be a compromise, or England will go to the World Cup next year seriously disadvantaged. But we move on. For the better, as far as the game itself is concerned, Beaumont says.

'I go to Twickenham, it's a fantastic experience. We bump into each other, the old guys, Fran Cotton, Roger Uttley, and tell each other how great we were... Not really. But it's wonderful to see the place full and the game so popular. That's why I love to be involved, to make sure England can get back to being number one. On their day, they're more than a match for anybody.

'Bill Beaumont, grand-slam winner in 1980, could have walked down most streets in the land and people would say, "Who's he?" Most people knew me from being on A Question of Sport. Now the game's got massive coverage, in the papers and on television. Any one of the England World Cup guys now are all much higher profile.

'When they first played international rugby, there were about six different lineout calls. Now there are about 50. But what a spectacle it is now. There is a bigger emphasis on defence. At Twickenham, with the big crowds, you get a huge gasp for a big tackle.'

Rugby was seen at its absolute best again through a haze of free Guinness and bonhomie in London the other night. They came from all corners of the game to be at the annual rugby writers' dinner and, in Andy Ripley, the fraternity were blessed with a speaker who brought just the right mix of emotion and eccentricity to what can be a chaotic, sometimes embarrassing, evening.

Nobody who was there will ever forget the night Henry Kelly stormed from the podium after only a few minutes when the well-oiled congregation greeted what was a worthy but boring speech with gathering indifference. There was no chance of that happening with Rippers, a man who better than most knows how to laugh at himself. On his first ever journalistic assignment, a match report for the subsequently murdered Sunday Correspondent, Ripley began thus: 'Get your hankies out readers; this journo's ready to blub.'

So, with Ripley presiding at the Cafe Royal on Monday night, you would never have known the game was in crisis, that England's rugby folk are going into the Six Nations bickering yet again among themselves.

For half an hour or so, the former England tearaway forward cut through all of that. Among other things, he talked with quiet dignity and no little humour about his battle with prostate cancer. He didn't want pity; he wanted every man over 45 to go out and 'get bloody tested'.

'He's a great guy,' Beaumont says of Ripley. 'He's what rugby is all about.'

It would be nice if a few more people were listening to that sentiment.
It is actually well worth a read and illustrates the move from amateur to professional, the move from mates deciding issues over a beer to lawyers deciding them.

It also illustrates that shit happens in other unions but it's almost never about individuals trying to personally score from the game.
I do wonder though, what the South African rugby landscape would look like if, say, Harry Viljoen owned Western Province lock, stock and barrel or Christo Wiese owned the Bulls etc.  
yes ras great arti-

The south african game has mostly lost that connection with its supporters

On the probe thing- some guys will have to get tested then- not on The Clown ;-)
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