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SCRUM for the possession of rugby

It was like something out of a dream: a battle-scarred Francois Pienaar accepting the William Webb Ellis Trophy from a green and gold clad Nelson Mandela. But a dark cloud was looming over the delirium of the rainbow sport. A storm blown up by the very institution that brought South Africa's greatest sporting triumph to millions across the world: the media. Pierre de Villiers and JJ Harmse investigate the battle of the media moguls and the influence it could have on the future of rugby as we know it.

They may not be two meters tall or weigh 120 kg, but over the last three months media magnates have bulldozed the rugby-world more than a New Zealand macro-wing ever could. Before the third Rugby World Cup the names Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer were obscure to local rugby lovers; now they are household names. The battle of the media corporations over rugby has changed the face of the sport forever. How then, did it happen that rugby and its players have become pawns in a power struggle between media tycoons?

Until recently rugby was the only world sport left with an amateur status. This caused the game to be an enigma in an era during which sport has become a billion dollar business. A split 100 years ago saw rugby evolve into two codes: league and union. Over the years, the 13-player league became professional, while the 15-player union kept its amateur status.

With all the money generated in league, temptations were always there for amateur players to change code.

In the late 1950s Tom van Vollenhoven, the Springbok wing and hero of the 1955 series against the British Lions, took this bold step. This star player signed with an English league side Saint Helens and, though very successful in the new code, he was never to play in the green and gold again.


But with a traditionalist like Dr Danie Craven at the helm of South African rugby, the idea of players becoming professional was sacrilege in the modern era. In the 1980s Rob Louw and Ray Mordt’s decision to sign up for an English league side was the first indications of the damaging effects rugby union could suffer if top players defected.

However, rugby union seemed to survive any league storm that blew its way. In the nineties, South African rugby was especially lucky not to lose players like James Small and Pieter Muller who turned down lucrative league offers.

Other unions were not as fortunate. Wales lost Scott Quinell and Jonathan Davies; Australia Garrick Morgan; and New Zealand John Timu. A full scale migration from the rugby union code seemed imminent. The third Rugby World Cup was suddenly labelled the Armageddon of rugby union. Administrators, players and spectators alike realised that when Mr Ed Morrison blew the whistle to signal the end of the final, rugby was due for a permanent transformation. And there was Aussie media magnate, Rupert Murdoch, lurking on the sidelines.

Shortly before the final match the news broke that Murdoch had acquired the broadcasting rights of all games between South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, now grouped together in an organization called Sanzar. The price: a whopping $540 million.

The implications reverberated throughout rugby circles. On the one hand, players right down to provincial level stood to coin more money, but on the flip-side local broadcasters could be deprived of showing any rugby if their bid to Murdoch failed.

While a row between Dr Louis Luyt and local broadcasters - who claimed they had been promised the rights - started to heat up, another tycoon entered the fray: Murdoch’s main rival, Australian media magnate Kerry Packer, at the steer of the newly formed Rugby World Corporation.

Diamond carrots

And so the war over the future of rugby started with media corporations flashing diamond carrots in front of the world’s best players.

The cheque-book war on the broadcasting plains between these two media cowboys is nothing new. The first rugby showdown was over the lucrative rights of the Australian rugby league. Packer won that round. He can broadcast this code until the year 2000. Quick on the draw, Murdoch responded by buying players and coaches for his own Super League to be broadcast on his Foxtel network. Murdoch’s latest deal with the leading Southern Hemisphere rugby unions meant the roles were now reversed.

Not to be outdone, Packer whipped out a shopping list of the world’s 900 best players. The reason for his buying frenzy was a world series competition starring the greats of rugby, to be broadcasted, of course, on his network. And with offerings of $250 000 per player for three years, Packer apparently had the financial muscle to make the scheme a reality.

Or did he? From the outset it was clear that the future of rugby was not big enough for both of the media outlaws. Only one would be left standing, and by all indications it is Packer who has to pack his bags. Even though the future of the World Rugby Corporation seems doomed, the mere threat was enough to propel rugby in a new direction.

The media moguls’ challenge jolted rugby unions around the world into shackling their best players. Where unions have always disguised the overt compensation of "amateur" players, lucrative contracts were now being flashed with gay abandon. With South Africa, New Zealand and Australia already paying players, the last bastion of amateurism, the International Rugby Board (IRB) had no choice but to announce rugby a professional sport.

Even though the ruling was not welcomed by the whole rugby world, players can now "legally" receive match fees and bonuses for winning. More importantly has been the fact that players have to decide which rugby turf is the greenest. For once Sarfu and other rugby unions have had to take a backseat to player demands. The players decided whether Packer or Murdoch could change the game. But change it will.

If anyone thinks that, with a magnate like Murdoch signing the cheques, the game will not change, they need only look back to 1977, when Packer revolutionised another national pastime.

It started when Packer asked the Australian Cricket Board to grant his Channel Nine television station the broadcasting rights of test matches. Rejection led to retaliation. Packer hauled out his cheque-book to sign up 51 of the world’s top cricketers to play in his own world series.

He effectively hijacked the game, moulding it into what he thought would be more attractive for viewers: night cricket, limited overs, colourful clothing and, more important to Packer, a big following.

Rugby might experience similar changes under Murdoch. Eddie Barlow, a rebel player of 1977, predicts a possible split.

"Rugby union people should act swiftly otherwise the same fate that befell cricket - a split - is sure to hit rugby as well. I am not critical of the whole situation, but players needed to be paid more because that is how rugby will make progress."

'One-eyed misadministration'

"It’s sad," says Barlow who also represented Transvaal as a rugby centre, "that through one-eyed misadministration rugby union is now facing problems brought on by lucrative offers from other sources." Barlow has first-hand experience of changes induced by a media corporation.

"One must realise that the most important thing for the media corporations is not the game but money earned by high viewership numbers and good ratings. The Packer corporation craved a cricket spectacle. It did not matter whether rules like bouncers and overstepping were not strictly enforced. Players were frequently hit by bouncers but this only added to the spectacle.

"A big media corporation won’t think twice about changing a standard rule if it means more people will tune in. If it thinks the eighth man should be discarded, the media corporation will do it."

Barlow is adamant about the transformation of the game’s social structure: "Rugby turning professional is progress - late as it is. People who say that’s bad should dump the Concorde in the sea."

Sports writers in South Africa have lived in the belly of the Packer-Murdoch-Luyt-beast and have very different perspectives on the effect its rampage could have on rugby. They agree the sport will change. But is it to the advantage or the detriment of rugby?

Frontline sports writer for Die Burger in Cape Town, Fritz Joubert, foresees a split, not only caused by money but also along geographic lines. "The Murdoch contract has caused an even bigger rift between Northern and Southern Hemisphere teams. The Northern Hemisphere is traditionally more conservative and rugby could very well develop along two different roads."

But it is not only rugby at national level that will be influenced by the intervention of media moguls, says Die Burger reporter Pieter Redelinghuys, who covers the country district rugby. He sees a bleak future for rugby on the platteland once professionalism takes over. All players with a hint of talent will join big unions.

Social Order

Glenn Schouw of the Kwazulu-Natal daily newspaper, The Mercury believes that a professional league might damage the social order of the game.

"In rugby there is the interaction between teammates, all from different social backgrounds. You get your farmer, your lawyer, your mechanic and your student, all playing together. You could lose that romantic image once everybody becomes a professional rugby player." He says that remuneration was inevitable. Players now stand stronger when negotiating with administrators.

Schouw doubts whether the game will undergo a metamorphosis similar to cricket. "People were looking for a shorter version of cricket. These days nobody can afford to sit through a five day test. Limited overs cricket made the sport more accessible."

But, as was the case with cricket, the imminent changes initiated by the media will not all be bad. For some sports writers the changes in rugby signal an exciting new phase in the game. These pundits feel the game is in need of a facelift anyway. The whole issue of professionalism benefits the game, the players, and, most of all, the spectators.

Award-winning rugby writer for the Cape Town daily The Argus, Gavin Rich, feels that the involvement of the media corporations could still be to rugby’s benefit. He agrees Packer and Murdoch will leave no stone unturned in selling rugby as a spectacular drama-series, but also predicts no radical changes in the rules of the game.

"Furthermore," says Rich, "isn’t speeding-up the game to make it more attractive, something people have been propagating for some time now?

The changes in cricket catalysed by media intervention - like the popular night series - were initially scoffed at but are now enjoyed as an integral part of the game."

Valid point, but what about the romantic image of rugby? Rich believes "players have dollar signs ringing in their heads. Money is the most important factor now."

Players will definitely earn more money. Veteran sports writer Quintus van Rooyen of the Gauteng daily Beeld predicts top players like Joost van der Westhuizen becoming millionaires overnight.

Sports writers will have to adapt as well. Van Rooyen feels that they will have to become more critical of players earning money from the game.

"As highly paid professionals, they will be evaluated more strictly than your amateur player."

Van Rooyen is in favour of a semi-professional approach to rugby, where the existing structures remain, with players being paid overtly for their services to the game. This will also protect the development of the game at grassroots level.

While traditionalists might scoff at the idea, the fact remains that the use of modern media technology may affect rugby in a big way.

Former Springbok coach, Ian MacIntosh, sees this as a good thing, stating in a recent interview with SA Sports Illustrated: "We have the technology, so let’s use it. Television will save a lot of trouble when making a decision on dicey tries, on collapsing the scrums, and sendings off. Also players, knowing that television is watching them, and can be used against them, will cut down on foul play, bringing more discipline into the game."

Andrew Koopman of Die Burger also sees the changes brought on by the media in a positive light.

"All the media structures will benefit the game. We will soon see a third umpire as in cricket, communication between him and the match official on borderline decisions such as foul play and whether a dropped goal was good or not."

Koopman says "referees will also have to become professionals themselves, as with big money involved, a professional person in charge of a game will become essential."

Time-outs for commercials during matches will be another big possibility. "The interested parties will have to make profits any possible way, if it means having a waterbreak after the first twenty minutes, so be it."

But should a game with a great tradition be altered just to keep couch potatoes happy? In Australia and New Zealand, rugby union is battling with the league version to attract these remote controlling individuals. All Black coach, Laurie Mains, admitted at a news conference during the recent World Cup that the All Blacks pattern was forced upon them by the League.

"We had to start scoring tries to keep spectators interested and to keep up with League, where kicking is only a desperate alternative."

So where does South African rugby go from here? Do we still have a say over our national game or is that up to Murdoch?

Chief Executive Officer of Sarfu, Edward Griffiths, dismisses claims that Sarfu sold out South African rugby: "We sold the broadcast rights to Newscorp [Murdoch’s corporation] and that is all. Sarfu will still decide where and when games will be played.

"Television rights and broadcasting have become sport’s major income. That is the reality of all sports, including rugby. The role of television in the future of rugby is vital."

He dispelled fears that the deal will kill rugby on the platteland. "Sarfu is already subsidising those unions to a large extent and the income from the Newscorp deal will benefit them as well, as we will have more money to give them."

On the subject of third umpires and television replays for borderline decisions, Griffiths is reluctant to speculate.

"Electronic progress will be an advantage to the game," he says, "but I’m not exactly sure how far one should go."


And the local broadcasters? Which version will they follow? M-Net’s Gerrie de Villiers admitted a Catch-22 situation before the Packer withdrawal.

"Although commercial viability will rule the day, we will be attracted to the best package. With a split between Sarfu and leading provincial players, a looming possibility, we are in a very precarious position. "We are currently negotiating with both parties, but due to the sensitivity of the matter, I can’t elaborate on that."

Despite Packer’s apparent back-down, the future of rugby is still unclear. Will Murdoch and the new-look unions hang onto top players and determine the way the game should go, or will Packer rebound with even more money and bigger schemes? While everybody speculates, one fact remains:

The media and the money it generates have reshaped rugby forever. Good or bad, this is obviously debatable. Time will tell if, as PJ Powers sang at the World Cup, the (rugby) world will be in union.

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