Allan Massie: Rugby World Cup doomed joy of the amateur game

Were you, as a rugby fan, excited by the announcement of the game's proposed new calendar to be introduced in a couple of years? Were you, as a cricket fan, excited by the ECB's plan for an eight-team city-based T20 competition, and the consequent further weakening of the sport's county structure? Perhaps you were, but I would guess that, in both cases, a lot of people, perhaps the majority, may share my dislike, disapproval and dismay. For the truth is that when it comes to a game or sport that we love, we tend to be conservatives. Change, we think, is usually for the worst.

Finlay Calder showed true amateur spirit. Picture: SNS

Take rugby. There was no clamour from the people who lined club touchlines every week and who filled Murrayfield, Twickenham, Lansdowne Road or the old Cardiff Arms Park two, three or at most four times a season for the game to go professional. We were happy with it as it was when big club matches were local derbies, when internationals were rare and therefore special events, and when New Zealand, Australia or South Africa (before the political ban on account of apartheid) visited the northern hemisphere only occasionally, and therefore arrived as glamorous unknowns.

The old amateur game had many merits. Being amateur, it was cheap to run. There were no salaries to pay, expenses were stringently scrutinised, and commercial interests of little account. Tickets, even for internationals, were cheap. You could take your whole family to Murrayfield without having to approach your bank manager – for local branches still had managers then – with a request for a temporary increase in your overdraft.

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The game on the field was serious, often fierce, sometimes brutal – more brutal than it is today when cameras pick up misdemeanours – but it was also fun. For the players it was a recreation, not a job. The job was what they returned to on Monday morning, like Peter Dods painting the public toilets in Galashiels a couple of days after kicking half-a-dozen goals against France to enable us to win the Grand Slam in 1984. In those days too, players, unless injured, were on the field for the whole 80 minutes; there were no substitutes at will. Scotland’s greatest tight-head prop, Iain Milne, never found himself facing a new fresh opponent after 50 minutes of mastering his first opponent.

Of course, in many respects the game was less skilful than it is now. Not even the All Blacks handled half as well, or off-loaded as remarkably, as the All Blacks do today. Well, fair enough, today’s All Blacks are extraordinary. They may be the finest rugby side ever. As Roger Alton remarks in his Spectator sports column this week, a New Zealand second XV would probably win the Six Nations. And they play exhilarating rugby too. Stand-off Beauden Barrett is so brilliant that you find yourself thinking it was an unusual piece of sentimentality that persuaded Steve Hanson & Co to patch up Dan Carter for last year’s World Cup. All the same, none of today’s All Blacks will be returning to tend to their sheep as the great Colin Meads did between matches.

It was, of course, the invention of the World Cup that doomed the amateur game. (Well, you can add in air travel too, as a subsidiary cause.) Shamateurism came first, then professionalism was inevitable. The recreation has become a business. One of the last flickers of the true amateur spirit came from our Lions captain Finlay Calder. Invited to go on some friendly unofficial tour a few weeks before Scotland were due to tour somewhere or other, he got a telephone call from Murrayfield ordering him to do no such thing. “Oh aye,” said Finlay, ”the cheque’s in the post, is it?” “What do you mean?” was the response. “I’ve got an employer who pays my salary,” said Finlay, “and it’s not the SRU.” End of call; jolly tour on.

Changed days indeed. Of course, much of rugby today is marvellous. I love it. Last weekend watching Glasgow v Leinster, bits of Saracens v Exeter and Clermont-Auvergne destroying Racing92 of Paris, I delighted at the commitment, skill, power and inventiveness on show. Wonderful stuff, which doesn’t prevent me from looking back with fond nostalgia on the game as it used to be, both on and off the field, back to the days when that greatest of rampaging Scottish forwards, Douglas Elliott, received a postcard from Murrayfield inviting him to take part in a Scottish trial and instructing him to bring his own towel and soap.

Meanwhile, reverting to the proposed new calendar, I observe that, while everyone admits that too much is demanded of players and they need periods of rest, the decision of the wise high heid-yins is to add a new competition, a World Club Championship, to the merry-go-round. It’s a long way from the early days of the Border League, on which the SRU used to frown as a deplorable organised competition.