The professional rugby revolution caught us cold

Gavin Hastings is mobbed by fans after Scotland's defeat by New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Gavin Hastings is mobbed by fans after Scotland's defeat by New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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20 years after the game’s decision to go pro, we are still struggling to adjust

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the historic meeting in a Paris hotel that changed the face of rugby for ever. On 26 August 1995 the men who ran the sport decreed that the game going open; payment of players would henceforth be allowed, a practice that was already widespread in France, South Africa and elsewhere. With exquisite timing it was exactly 100 years since several clubs had broken off to form the Northern League which morphed over time into fully professional rugby league. Better late than never, the league grandees must have thought to themselves.

Allan Hosie and Freddie MacLeod were the two Scottish representatives at the International Rugby Board meeting in Paris which was chaired by Bernard Lapasset, although the late Vernon Pugh chaired the working party tasked with the whole amateur issue and he was careful to offer every union present the chance to speak so no one could later claim they did not have a voice.

While there was no appetite in Scotland or Ireland for professionalism, both countries could see which way the wind was blowing. There seemed little point in throwing yourself under the bus on a point of principle. It has been suggested that Ireland’s Syd Miller and Tom Kiernan did exactly that, although not according to Hosie. He insists that the Irish reps didn’t vote against the motion because an official ballot never took place in Paris. “I am not convinced that the vote was ever taken,” says the former international referee. “But the unanimity was in the room, it was inevitable that the game would turn professional.”

According to eye-witnesses there was a vote and a unanimous one too, but not until a subsequent IRB meeting in Tokyo some months later. (Just to complicate matters, a recently published book states that there were two votes in Paris, with Ireland, France, Argentina and Japan dissenting in the first round before falling into line.)

“The Scots probably didn’t want the change,” Hosie continues. “We were far less prepared for it than most of the unions, but we knew there was nothing we could do about it. We had no other choice. It was only a matter of time.”

At least part of the reason the game went professional when it did was down to the machinations of Australian mogul Kerry Packer. He had already revolutionised cricket Down Under and now he financed the breakaway World Rugby Corporation (WRC) that threatened to do the same with rugby.

The WRC was said to have targeted 900 players worldwide and they were about halfway there, with South African skipper Francois Pienaar reported to be lining up 25 of the 28-strong Springboks squad to sign-up for the rebel body. All Blacks and Wallabies also signed up as well as 140 players from England’s Courage League. This prompted the RFU to double the money an international player could expect, from £30,000 to £60,000, in an effort to derail the WRC bandwagon.

Gavin Hastings recalls having a coffee with WRC boss, former Aussie prop Ross Turnbull, in South Africa before sounding out Scotland’s finest on his behalf. The deal was within a whisker of going through when the rumbustious chairman of the South African RFU, Louis Luyt, pictured right, ambushed his top players in a Sun City hotel room.

“You will never play for the Springboks again,” the bruiser is said to have threatened, and it proved enough. Pienaar could face down the All Blacks’ Haka but he blinked in the face of an ageing autocrat. There were rumours at the time of bungs sweetening the deal. With the Boks a no-show, the whole edifice collapsed and Packer’s nemesis Rupert Murdoch jumped into the gap, signing a ten-year deal with SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand and Australia Rugby) to broadcast matches.

These negotiations were taking place behind closed doors even while the 1995 World Cup was taking place. Almost immediately afterwards the rest of the world turned professional but the Scots were, painfully and predictably, slow to react, according to former Scotland centre Scott Hastings. “The Scottish Rugby Union did nothing about it,” he recalls. “Sir John Hall recruited Rob Andrew for Newcastle and Bath recruited Jason Robinson and paid their players and that was the first team that Edinburgh played in the European Cup. We were smashed.

“We were paid nothing in that first season except for the Five Nations. We got some appearance money for that. It wasn’t until the tour to New Zealand in 1996 that players started negotiating with the SRU to get paid properly, with coaches Richie Dixon and David Johnson acting as go-betweens.”

In addition to his coaching duties Johnson was a lawyer so his forensic brain probably retains more details than many others from the period, including the fact that everyone who made an appearance on the field was paid the same amount of money during the 1996 Five Nations.

“I think it was hundreds rather than thousands per game,” said Johnson. “The Union was wholly unprepared. Just months before that meeting in Paris the SRU was still peddling the line that the game was amateur and would remain that way.

“I remember a selection meeting early in 1996 in the wee small hours of the morning when we had to pick a squad consisting entirely of Scottish-based players to play... I think it was Wales, simply because the English-based players refused to play unless we came to a deal [regarding payment].

“There were a lot of strong characters playing in England at the time, people like Gregor Townsend, Doddie Weir, Eric Peters, Damien Cronin and Gary Armstrong. That team never did take to the field, some last- minute deal was thrashed out, but there was a lot of brinkmanship going on at the time. On the matter of actually paying the players, all decisions were made on the hoof rather than with any forethought.

“Professionalism had to happen but it hasn’t done us any favours, we made very, very poor decisions early on and we still haven’t fully recovered. The bigger countries with more players and more money generally do better, New Zealand and Argentina the exceptions. But professionalism hasn’t helped Scottish rugby in any way, shape or form, especially in the first 10-15 years, although there are signs now, with Glasgow’s league win, that things are improving.”

During down-time on the 1996 tour to New Zealand the assistant national coach wrote a paper, ‘The Future of Rugby in Scotland’. He says the SRU feigned interest but ended up ignoring it, possibly because it called for widespread change to the committee-led governance in Scotland.

Scottish rugby has taken an infeasibly long time to come to terms with professionalism. Glasgow’s victory last season in the Guinness Pro12 was the first time that a Scottish pro team had actually won something in 20 long, laborious years.

Better late than never, you might be thinking to yourself.