Did Going Professional Ruin Rugby Union?
On August 26, 1995, the chairman of the International Rugby Board, Vernon Pugh, brought the era of amateur rugby to an end and ushered in the dawn of professionalism.
A quarter of a century on, the ripples of that decision are still being felt from the grassroots of club rugby union to the pinnacle of the international game.
Was it for better or worse? Did professionalism ruin the thug’s game played by gentleman, which can trace its history back to 1823, or was it the making of the sport that drew a combined global audience of 857 million for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan?
Then and Now
To begin to answer that question, you first need to compare the lay of the land in 1995 with that of the present. Back then, South Africa had just won an emotional, cathartic Rugby World Cup where England, the Five Nations Grand Slam champions, were steamrollered by the All Blacks in the semi-finals.
Leicester Tigers were champions of the English Premiership, then known as the Courage League, while Saracens were in the second division. The Heineken Cup didn’t exist. Super Rugby didn’t exist. Even the Tri Nations didn’t exist. And hopes of anyone outside of New Zealand, Australia or South Africa winning a World Cup were as fanciful as Mike Catt winning a one-on-one with Jonah Lomu.
Fast forward 25 years and the Springboks have won another heartwarming, nation-healing World Cup, their third in nine tournaments. Only England, in 2003, have broken the south’s stranglehold on the Webb Ellis Cup since. Wales are the current Grand Slam champions of the expanded Six Nations. Saracens are Premiership and European champions, albeit tainted by the salary cap scandal, and Leicester are teetering on the verge of relegation.
The northern hemisphere’s Heineken Champions Cup is now the envy of the club game while in the southern hemisphere, and especially Australia, domestic rugby union has fallen a long way down the pecking order.
The sport has been fighting fires on numerous fronts, with cheating on the field exposed by the Harlequins bloodgate debacle of 2009 and off the field by the aforementioned Saracens salary cap con of 2019.
Huge, entrenched chasms remain between the top tier international sides like South Africa and England and the second tier sides like Fiji and Namibia. And understandable concerns over concussions and player welfare have led to constant rule tweaks, law changes and mid-match TMO debates that leave spectators – and some players – baffled.
So, has the game improved? Did turning pro benefit those playing and watching the sport? Or did professionalism, and all the baggage that came along with it, actually undermine the amateur ethos of rugby union?
Where The Game Has Improved
Fitter, Faster, Stronger
On the field the game has undoubtedly evolved. “Players are now fitter, faster and stronger than they’ve ever been,” says Phil Davies, who played over 350 times for Llanelli RFC and represented Wales 46 times in the amateur era. “The speed, pace and power of the players today is frightening.”
In an amateur playing career spanning 18 years and two World Cups, Davies had a variety of jobs, including roles with the South Wales Police Force and Ford Motor Company. He used to train Monday and Wednesday on his own and Tuesday and Thursday with his club, then play on a Saturday. At 32 he hung up his boots, just as the game was going professional, to take the reins as coach with Leeds Tykes in the fourth tier.
Going professional didn’t change the players at Leeds. They weren’t swanning in with big paychecks. “We only had two pros at the start and if they did earn any money it was small contracts. The rest were still working, training with us twice a week and playing. They worked their socks off. Professionalism just gave players the opportunity to work on their skills.”
Opportunity and Incentive
It also provided Davies and his players with the time and incentive to get better, which led to three promotions and two campaigns in the Heineken Cup. Davies, 56, has since coached the Scarlets, Worcester Warriors, Cardiff Blues and most recently Namibia at the 2015 and 2019 World Cups.
In Japan 2019, Namibia – the bottom ranked nation in the tournament – produced an unforgettable first half performance against the full might of New Zealand. In one way that match demonstrated how the game hasn’t moved on for every nation, with half the Welwitschias’ squad made up of dentists, brewery workers and students.
But at the same time, it reflects the progress Tier 2 nations have made, with the 20th ranked side restricting the double world champions to a 10-9 lead after almost 40 minutes.
“They were young, fit and enthusiastic,” reflects Davies, with pride. “I knew how hard those guys had worked and the opportunity they afforded themselves. They earned the respect of the All Blacks. The scoreboard was unkind in the end but we were competitive for 40 minutes which would have been unheard of just four or five years before that.”
For Davies, the qualities on show that day were instilled in the amateur era. “There are lots of things I learned as an amateur player – the passion, camaraderie and responsibility. I enjoyed playing but everything has to evolve and move forward and that’s what professionalism has done.”Phil Davies pictured performing for Wales against Argentina in 1991 (© PA Images)
Strength and Conditioning
Namibia’s valiant effort against the All Blacks and Leeds’ rise through the ranks of English rugby – and more notably Exeter Chiefs’ journey from the doldrums of the Devon leagues to Premiership champions in 2017 – was arguably only made possible due to professionalism’s impact on strength and conditioning.
In the mid-90s rugby union was playing catch up with rugby league, and losing players to its professional set up, with the likes of cross-code players Allan Bateman, Martin Offiah and Scott Quinnell demonstrating far superior physicality and athleticism when they were brought back to professional rugby union.
“If someone told me they thought going professional ruined the game, I’d say you obviously didn’t watch Nottingham vs Mosely in the early nineties,” says journalist Chris Jones and author of The Secret Life of Twickenham. “It was 9-6. Turgid, boring stuff played on dreadfully wet pitches. Professionalism brought the best players back from rugby league and the 1997 British and Irish Lions tour benefitted massively.”
It also helped England at the international level, says Jones, but only because the national side benefited from an “obsessive coach” with professional ideas in Clive Woodward. “Up to 1999 England played at being pro and were quite good but not brilliant,” says Jones.
“They always had hundreds of players. But then they got an obsessive coach and changed the way they trained, prepared and thought about rugby. The information the players picked up travelled back to the clubs and professional ideas then spread around the world.”
The Heineken Cup
The spectacle of the club game at the top of the rugby pyramid in the northern hemisphere has visibly improved, with average attendances in Europe rising from 6,502 in 1995/96 to 15,228 in 2018/19. In 1995, the Heineken Cup – the Champions League of club rugby – and the riches it brought with it drew the galacticos of the southern hemisphere to the boggy pitches of England.
Newly promoted Saracens FC were one of the first to dazzle with their star power. “In 1996 journalists were invited to the Trocadero in Leicester Square where new owner Nigel Wray revealed the World Cup winning Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, saying he had just signed for Saracens,” Jones remembers.
“Pienaar was touted at £400k per season.” Australia’s Michael Lynagh, France’s Philippe Sella and England international Kyran Bracken soon followed. “These were heady times,” says Jones.
“But even then clubs were paying wages into offshore Jersey accounts, buying them houses in South Africa at the end of their career. The seeds of those clever payments were sown from the start. Rugby’s been battling illegal payments for 25 years.” Nevertheless, it still took until 2011, 16 years later, for Saracens to lift their first league title.
Statistics: Charlie Mullan
Where The Game Has Regressed
Club versus Country
England’s governing body, the Rugby Football Union, long resisted the introduction of a national league structure, fearing it would put pressure on clubs to have to pay their players, thereby contravening the amateur ethos and creating friction between club and country. And, certainly in England and France, that power struggle has never been resolved.
While England secured their first RWC victory eight years after professionalism, that was largely in spite of the changes going professional had on English rugby. Rob Andrew, the former fly-half and professional rugby director of the RFU, has described the months after professionalism as “the Wild West”. In his 2004 autobiography Sir Clive Woodward described the English club versus country setup as “a disaster from a coach’s point of view”.
More recently, on Matt Dawson’s Rugby Show on BBC Radio 5 Live, England’s 2003 World Cup winning scrum half could be heard bemoaning “the mistakes” and “howlers” made in 1995 “that are still biting us on the backside”.
The North-South Divide
The initial impact of professionalism that summer was to fracture the northern and southern hemispheres. Australia, New Zealand and the world champions South Africa were immediately able to contract their leading players, having signed a $555 million television deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. No central contracts were in place in Europe and are yet to materialise for England or France, whose unions are constantly at loggerheads with the clubs.
In 25 years, not much has changed, according to Jones. “While professionalism has had a huge impact for the likes of Canada and the United States in recent years, the wider game of club rugby has suffered terribly. “It muddied the water,” he says. It created “vanity projects” of local clubs like London Scottish, West Hartlepool and Richmond, the first professional team in England, who were forced into administration when their backers pulled out.
“It was all built on sand,” says Jones, of Richmond FC’s capitulation in 1999. “The entire team collapsed. The shells of those clubs were sold onto London Irish and they went down to Middlesex 1, the bottom of the pyramid, and had to fight their way back. Those were warning shots and England Rugby didn’t learn their lesson. The game has always been club run rather than RFU run. England’s rugby has survived despite the mess.”
The last 25 years has also seen an unfortunate amount of distance develop between grassroots rugby and the elite men’s game, with the Championship the latest casualty, says rugby commentator Nick Heath. “The game from top to bottom feels disconnected.”
Rather than the RFU pulling up the drawbridge by ending promotion and relegation, Heath believes there should be more funding through the tiers and dual registration of players. “You only have to see how many former Championship players were in England’s World Cup squad to see the potential benefits.”
On the field, Heath says the game has suffered from too much tinkering. “The amateur era players felt more relatable, there was more humility. Professionalism meant we had to address several issues on the field but as a result we’ve built a complicated game. That’s why I’m making it my mission to demystify the sport.”Changes to the game has led to an increase in physicality, evident at the 2019 RWC (© PA Images)
Jones agrees that professionalism sucked a lot of fun out of the game. “Rugby had to evolve but it’s done that too often with bad law changes,” he says. “It led to basketball type scoring driven by Super Rugby.” Indeed, the average tries per game has almost doubled in the Six Nations, from 2.9 to 5.0, and risen from 4.5 to 6.4 in the free-scoring Rugby Championship.
Far from being a good thing, Jones feels this has robbed the game of the key ingredient that made it so special. “The people in charge of the game, to make it more saleable, forgot some basic requirements for the sport. It should be a game for all shapes and sizes. The dynamics of the sport are particularly special. In 1995 we had a clash of amateur and professional. It was played at real pace with lots more counter attacking.
“Now the way it’s set up by coaches and viewed by players is so much more clinical. A lot of the fun has gone out of rugby – maybe because nobody knew what they were doing. Now the stakes are so high, epitomised by Saracens being relegated. A £2m revenue drop has huge ramifications on peoples’ livelihoods. Now, you either thrive or you die.”
While the risks and rewards of professional rugby have grown since 1995, player welfare has also been taken far more seriously. This began with a three-year Player Burnout Report in 2005 and continues today with concussion protocols and tackle height directives that, some argue, have ruined the flow of the game on the field and robbed us of some of the sport’s more colourful characters.
However, Nick Heath has sympathy with the blazers and lawmakers trying to make the game appeal to future generations. “Professionalism might have stilted some of the characters in the game,” says Heath. “But rugby is trying to find players outside of its traditional makeup. The game at the top needs to look like a sport that people want to play, and that they will allow their kids to play.
“Rugby has to appeal to people to watch and not wince. It has to look safe. A blatant punch in the face in the amateur era was a brilliant and hilarious example of self-policing but it wasn’t peoples’ careers back then. Cleaning the game up is important and lawmakers are trying to achieve that, meaning the onus is on the broadcasters to help explain the game.”
Where The Game Needs To Go
A Level Playing Field
After 25 years of professionalism, has rugby become more competitive? At the sharp end, not really. Since the first World Cup, only four nations have lifted the Webb Ellis Cup and only five have competed in the nine finals since 1987. Yet efforts have been made to make rugby a more global game, with the invitation of Italy into the Six Nations in 1999, Argentina into the Rugby Championship in 2012 and with Japan hosting the first Rugby World Cup in Asia in 2019.
According to the RWC’s principal charity partner, ChildFund Pass It Back, rugby is played in more than 120 countries – from Laos to Vanuatu – and over eight million players are registered in competitions across Europe, Africa, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific.
Beyond the men’s game, women’s rugby has grown and the RFU should be credited for making England the first fully professional women’s rugby nation in 2019, something the men are still waiting for.
“The first women’s team to go pro should be a line in the sand,” says Nick Heath, highlighting the qualities of England’s Katy Daley-McClean, Zoe Harrison and Emily Scarratt, 2019’s World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year. “There isn’t the breadth and depth of skill levels in the women’s game yet – but there will be.”
A Global Game
“Ultimately the game has become more global,” says Phil Davies. “It’s fantastic the way the women’s game has developed. The men’s under 20s has developed. Sevens rugby has developed. The cherry on top has been to see women’s and men’s sevens in the Olympics [at Rio in 2016]. That’s led to the powerhouses of the Olympics, like the US, China, Russia, to embrace rugby a little bit more.”
On the scoreboard, the gap between the top dogs and underdogs is narrowing. In 1995 Japan lost by a record 145-17 to New Zealand, while in 2019, the biggest margin of victory was the All Blacks’ 71-9 victory over Davies’ Namibia and Japan notably beat both Ireland and Scotland to reach their first RWC quarter-final.
But more – much more – needs to be done to level the playing field and develop the sport. Phil Davies expects the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 will accelerate efforts to unite the game under a global season and heal the divisions between north and south that professionalism created.
For the game to truly grow, argues Nick Heath, the 2019 RWC can’t be a one off. “A Tier 2 nation hosting the tournament can’t be allowed to become a token moment,” he says. “A quarter of a century since professionalism, rugby’s biggest issue – beyond how we come out of the Covid-19 lockdown – will be enabling teams like Japan and the Pacific Nations to regularly sit at the top table of world rugby and shape the future of the game for the next 25 years to come.”
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Rugby union turned professional on August 26, 1995, less than two months after the World Cup final in Johannesburg. The prospect of turning professional had been discussed for years prior, but with interest in the sport at an all time high following South Africa’s first World Cup triumph, Vernon Pugh, chairman of the International Rugby Board, capitalised by officially making rugby union professional.
In January 2019, England became the first women’s rugby team to go fully professional when 28 players were given contracts. Other key rugby nations such as New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have a mixture of full-time and part-time players on their female rosters.
Rugby football split into two different codes in 1895, creating rugby union and rugby league in England. The split can be traced back to a dispute over compensation for players who missed a day’s work in order to play rugby. Working class northern teams in Yorkshire and Lancashire supported the idea of compensating players for lost income, creating the Northern Union (NU). After being sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) for compensating players, the NU broke away. In time, they altered their own rules, ending up with rugby league as we now know it.
Before professionalism was introduced in 1995, rugby union teams were membership clubs who relied heavily on match-day revenue generated from their well-spectated events. With no player salaries, relying on gate receipts, sponsorships and membership fees was a sustainable model, but there came a point when union was losing its best players to rugby league where professionalism had been in place much earlier, prompting the sport to turn pro.
Englishman William Webb Ellis is credited with inventing the sport of rugby in 1823. Legend has it that Ellis, whilst a student at Rugby School in Warwickshire, was taking part in a game of football when he lifted the ball into his arms and charged forward with it. It is believed the game of rugby was derived out of this incident, but many rugby historians have questioned the authenticity of the story. Despite the doubts, the Rugby World Cup trophy is named after Ellis.
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