The unnatural birth of Professional Rugby and its handicaps now

Professional rugby

Immediately upon becoming professional, Rugby Union went global. The first Professional Rugby competition was Super Rugby, now all but dead in the water. This is the story of how that came about and how the peace deal made then influences rugby’s development now.

Rugby, of either code, is a story both of tribalism and exclusivity. It is one of the constant struggles between amateurs and professionals. The state of Rugby Union today is no different.

To understand it though, one needs to go back to the original great conflict within the game of Rugby Football.

The ‘Great Schism’ – from the start, professional rugby existed

The Rugby Football clubs originally split from the Football Association in the Schism, referring to ecclesiastic history. Blackheath chairman F.W. Campbell took his club out of the FA on December 8, 1863, after a disagreement about the rules that had just been drawn up. A number of clubs followed Blackheath and would continue to play Rugby Football, even though there was no organizing body. This was first founded in 1871, with the Rugby Football Union (RFU) being formed.

Only a few years after, the dispute that would become the Great Schism, started. After reports of professionalism in 1877, the Yorkshire Committee copied the Marylebone Cricket Club’s rules on amateurism. These were the first rules to keep Rugby Football decidedly amateur [and slightly exclusive]. However, these rules included a clause in which players could claim expenses if they were ‘out of pocket’.

Over the next few years though, sport as entertainment boomed, as did the number of sporting clubs. Big industrialists founded or supported clubs, especially in the rich industrial North of England. Because expenses were allowed to be paid, a sort of veiled professional rugby began to appear.

This all came to a head in 1893 and an inquiry was conducted. In the end, the rules against professionalism were tightened. As a result, the Yorkshire Rugby Union and its member clubs resigned from the RFU. They would later rename themselves the Rugby Football League and introduce changes to the game to set it apart from the other code. They would also be the first football league to allow professionalism.

Note: this is an example of how the game would begin a long journey toward the landmark 1995 decision by the IRB to allow professionalism. Although in sport, even this policy sometimes led to internal conflict.

The Super League Wars

The only place in the world where the other code of rugby football grew large was Australia. New South Wales players picked up the code very quickly. Queensland followed. It is here the next chapter of Rugby League’s professionalism story takes place. It is the chapter that is the prelude to Rugby Union becoming professional.

In 1993, a dispute started between Brisbane Bronco’s CEO John Ribot and the Australian Rugby League. It initially concerned the venue for the Grand Final, but the next year it became more than that. He envisioned a new league, with bigger names in the teams, and higher player salaries.

The new league would be named the Super League, and comprise of 12 teams. It would be televised and managed by News Corporation, owned by Rupert Murdoch, it looked at a projected profit of AU $5 million in the first year. The full plan was put to the ARL, who refused the deal and immediately imposed a sign-up deadline for all clubs.

On the 6th April 1995, the Rugby Football League and the New Zealand Rugby League signed a deal with News Corp. During that April, the war between the Super League and the ARL moved into open conflict. In late April and early May, eight Australian clubs signed with the Super League. New clubs were set up and the Star League, comprising 10 teams was announced.

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Two separate leagues then fought for the limited public domain, and the war would continue until 1998, with both sides finally compromising for the betterment of the sport. This saw the formation of the National Rugby League NRL) and the dominant force in rugby league continues to this day.

Super Rugby – halting the exodus of rugby players to League

The high wages offered by the Super League caused huge pressure in Australia and New Zealand. While not quite the same, a similar situation began to occur in the United Kingdom and France. Switching between Union and League had always happened, but now too many top-class players were taking the money over the love of the game. Jonathan Davies, Scott Quinnell, and John Timu being some leading examples.

As a response, the South African, Australian and New Zealand unions formed SANZAR and organized the Super 12 competition. They signed a broadcasting deal with News Corporation. This announcement on the eve of the World Cup final gave amateurism the final blow. On the 26th of August 1995, the International Rugby Board declared the game to be open.

That summer, the Heineken Cup also started. On the initiative of the then Five Nations Committee to provide a new level of professional cross border competition, it gave a new top-level for club rugby in Europe. In 1996, England and Scotland joined and created a strong rival to Super Rugby, as an environment for professional rugby to expand.

This too was a result of professionalism and increased the amount of money available in the game.

Consequences of professional rugby

Like any peace deal, there are too many drawbacks for the peace to last. Just like the revolutions of 1848 being a direct result of the Vienna Congress and World War Two a result of the Treaty of Versailles, many of the problems now can be traced back to that peace deal of 1995.

For Rugby League, a crack showed up in 2018. The Super League in the UK and France split from the RFL over revenue. They reconciled in May this year, because of the Covid 19 pandemic.

The Heineken Cup split from 2014, when English and French clubs also began to disagree with the organizers about revenue and TV rights. This conflict has since been resolved and we now have the Heineken Champions Cup. This competition is almost identical to the original, after restructuring.

Another consequence was the globalization of the game. Super Rugby came to encompass four Southern hemisphere countries, when Argentina and Japan joined in 2016. The Celtic League grew to become the Pro14, with teams from five countries and two continents. But the game has also remained exclusive. While talk of inclusion by  Tier Two nations exists, only a small number of nations are given possibilities.

The Heineken Cup, nor Challenge Cup is really open to clubs from other countries. Though there is a qualifying competition through which a single team from the Rugby Europe Championship countries can try to qualify for the next season’s Challenge Cup, they almost always lose out against the established nations.

Pacific Nations; always the feeder to many successful clubs has not been afforded any room to prosper independently.

Yet, slightly ironically, the instant addition of new top-level of competitions has had terrible consequences for the grassroots level. The game is spreading like no time before; Super Rugby’s brief expansion and the swelled PRO14 prime examples. At the same time, lower levels, especially in the original heartlands, fail to get enough funding to survive and thrive.

Lessons from history for professional rugby

It is from the sports that did become ‘open’ in those early days that rugby can learn a lot.

The first lesson is that the grassroots is the most important. All those big clubs and nations should help to spread the game, locally and internationally in the men’s and women’s game. This way the sport grows, and grows more inclusively.

Heartland Meads Cup - South Canterbury v Buller


By increasing the number of players, especially from an early age, you get more skilled senior players and more fans. While not profitable in the short term, over a long period of time, this is by far the more profitable course for the top-level and all stakeholders.

The second lesson is that the elite level is not necessarily the most exciting. Like all sports, rugby is an escape for the common man. It is an escape from daily life, from news and politics. And it is a substitute for battle. Players and fans alike relish fierce rivalries because of this. These rivalries and this tribalism is at the core of the game.

People will turn out in droves to watch England vs Wales, or England vs Scotland. Almost two whole provinces will turn out to watch Otago vs Canterbury. South Africa is turned upside down for matches like Sharks vs Blue Bulls. Bath vs Bristol is neighbour against neighbour.

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But in Super Rugby, Heineken Cup, and Pro14, most of these great rivalries have fallen by the wayside. They have been given such low priority that they have disappeared from the big audience’s view.

At the same time, the elite level is sometimes boring to watch as it is too analyzed and trained. Part of the excitement is unpredictability. Games in the Mitre 10 Cup right now are far more entertaining, because they are unpredictable. They include the same big names, but the amount of lesser gods gives the game far more.

Future of professional rugby must be local

In the end, what the Covid-19 pandemic is showing us in rugby is that the future is not global. It is local.

It is less traveling, choosing a slower pace and getting people to come out to support their own teams. They would rather see their neighbour play against a team they know rather than be dazzled by all the stars. In contrast to football, where the clubs buy the big stars, rugby has its own traditions for that. Test matches, Lions and the Barbarians is where we go to see the big stars. This is where a third lesson comes in.

While the old structures do not always have to appear, opening up is not a bad thing either. Taking a leaf out of association football’s book, a continental-wide tournament every four years could work. Opening up the continental club competition to more countries would work wonders too. While it would allow the traditions that have been developed over centuries to continue, it would also allow for further development.

Georgia rugby fans call out "Lelo, Lelo Sakartvelo"

If designed well, many countries’ national teams would benefit from this. Many clubs, and competitions, would too. Countries like Georgia, Spain, Romania, the Netherlands, Belgium, just to name a few, would be able to raise their game. Support for this comes from the highest levels, and Last Word on Rugby believes this could support a ‘Nations Cup’ style framework.

In the end, this is probably the biggest lesson that history can teach us. It is that the market rules all, and she is unpredictable. But by choosing the right track and looking carefully towards the long term future, it might be possible to grow the game and make the revenue grow along with it.



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