The Biggest Change of All

The Vault
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The Vault

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

There have been players, rules and technology advances that have all changed rugby. But nothing changed it more than the decision to turn the sport professional in September 1995.

Turning professional, now there was a game changer. A monumental game changer. The decision by World Rugby in September 1995 to allow players to be paid effectively meant that the sport would be starting afresh.

It meant that in no time, the athletes would change in body shape. They would become bigger, stronger and faster. They would be fitter. Their skills would improve quickly.

That in turn would mean that coaches would have to think more deeply about their strategical approach. Gameplans would become more detailed. There would have to be more thought put into how to break a defence as the athletes could cover more ground and would most likely miss fewer tackles.

To get that fine detail right, coaching teams would have to hire specialists – kicking coaches, scrum coaches and skills specialists would all suddenly be in demand. Strength and conditioning coaches were going to become central figures.

Then there was the marketing and promotion of the sport. In the amateur days, rugby didn't really compete with other sports for its audience. People just turned up to watch their club or province play because that's what they did. That thinking had to change. Marketing managers had to be hired, people brought in to sell sponsorship, ticket memberships and raise revenue and awareness.

And because the players had to be paid, that created something alien to rugby – the arrival of player agents and lawyers. Oh yes, they came because contracts had to be drawn up. Clubs were competing with each other and the old days of loyalty were over. It was about putting the best deal on the table and for the players, it was about making sure they were being protected.

Within weeks of World Rugby changing the constitution, the game around the world was frantic. There was chaos, but it was an exciting sort of chaos where there was a sense of opportunities being available that players had never thought would come their way.

In the Southern Hemisphere, a co-joint deal between New Zealand, South Africa and Australia had been signed to create Super Rugby and the Tri Nations.

In reality, this wasn't so different to what had been happening in the amateur era. Super 12 was a continuation of Super 10 – a similar cross-border competition that had been running for a couple of years. The big differences were the scale and from a New Zealand perspective, the decision to create combined teams. And of course there was the money.

Sanzar, as the combined administrative entity would be known, would be paid US$555 million over 10 years by broadcasters. This was an enormous sum of money but then again, this had to be used to fly players around the world, put them up, feed them and pay them.

In Europe, the situation was different. Clubs were being bought by entrepreneurs and wealthy types who had enormous disposable income and wanted vanity products. Rugby was way cheaper than football so it took no time for many leading clubs to have new owners and considerable budgets in place to buy players.

As former England first-five Rob Andrew said recently, things really did change overnight. Although he was close to the end of his playing career, he was hired by the ambitious Newcastle Club – which had been bought by the same family that owned the football club – within three weeks of the game turning professional. He was in the unusual position of being both a player and coaching director.

“It was an absolute whirlwind,” he said. “The game went professional at the end of August and within three weeks Newcastle United bought the old Gosforth Rugby Club in early to mid-September. I spoke to them about things and within three weeks I had left my job as a chartered surveyor in London and I was in Newcastle trying to work out what I was going to do in the director of rugby-player role in what was a second division side. “Then I set about trying to persuade some of my friends to come to join me and I carried a case load of contracts around with me trying to sign people up as we were just trying to make it up on a daily basis regarding what happens next.”

That question of 'what next?' remained prominent and pertinent for some time. Years in fact.

The madness took time to settle. That was perhaps inevitable as the transition happened so quickly. It was somewhat typical of rugby in that period to resist the move to professionalism for as long as they did.

The players had been pushing since the 1991 World Cup. That was probably the first time when the sport's status really started to feel outdated and not in any way practical.

Throughout the amateur age, international players had been reliant on the goodwill and generosity of employers to be available for longer tours. Those who were self-employed often lost money – sometimes significant amounts – chasing their dream of playing for their country. But the World Cup created a big problem for a lot of players – not all of them could take four weeks off work.

It was a huge ask and there they were, making these huge financial sacrifices to play at the World Cup and they weren't paid a bean for it. That would have been okay perhaps if World Rugby hadn't been making a small fortune at their expense.

Not to the extent it does now, but even back then the World Cup was raising significant amounts of sponsorship, broadcast and ticket revenue.

The mood among the players turned increasingly dark between the 1991 and 1995 World Cups. In the Northern Hemisphere they felt the situation had become farcical made worse because the situation in the South was a sham. It was obvious that many of the All Blacks were holding token jobs, positions that had been created by sponsors and didn't actually require individuals to do any work as such.

Many of the All Blacks were considered professional by their peers and no one particularly liked having to use loopholes or effectively break the rules the way that they were.

The danger for all major unions in this period was that their best players would defect to league where they could be openly paid. Many good players left between those two World Cups – players such as John Gallagher, Apollo Perelini, Scott Gibbs, Va'aiga Tuigamala, Junior Paramore, Scott Quinnell, Craig Innes and John Timu.

John Gallagher of Leeds takes a rest during a match against Hull at Headingley in Leeds, England. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport

It was a killer for rugby – they had to stand back and watch their players be picked off. There wasn't anything they could do about it because they couldn't fight back with money – they couldn't put a competing package on the table and the sport was probably lucky that they didn't lose more players than they did.

By 1995 the situation was becoming untenable. The Welsh were on the brink of collapse as so many of their players had gone to league and plenty more were talking about doing the same.

The World Cup in South Africa was going to be the biggest in the tournament's history and generate millions of dollars and the players, who would be away from home for the better part of a month, were going to see nothing.

But however dark the mood had become, administrators were clinging on to the past. They were in splendid isolation – totally out of touch with the situation. That much became obvious when England captain Will Carling, when interviewed for a documentary before the World Cup, stated that the game needed to turn professional. What he said on air was: “If the game is run properly as a professional game, you do not need 57 old farts running rugby.”

It was a humorous and gentle prod at the bloated RFU and their old boys brigade, but their reaction told a story in itself. The RFU led by president Dennis Easby called an emergency meeting and decided to sack Carling: “We have decided with regret that Will Carling’s captaincy of the England team be terminated forthwith,” they said. “For an England captain to say that is totally unjustified,” Easby went on to tell the Daily Mail. “It has brought the game into disrepute. This was a totally unsolicited comment, an insult to people who have done an awful lot of voluntary work.”

Carling issued a grovelling and presumably insincere apology and was reinstated as captain four days later. The incident, though, highlighted the disconnect in the game. Mutiny was in the air at the World Cup and it nearly came.

Most senior players had already decided they were ready to take matters into their own hands so when Australian media mogul Kerry Packer came up with his idea of the World Rugby Corporation, he had an interested audience.

Packer's idea, driven by former Wallaby Ross Turnbull, was to create an alternative rugby world where the players were all contracted and paid. He came seriously close to signing all the players he needed.

Contracts were in front of players, they were all talking and were ready to commit as the tournament came to a close. With the game on the brink of collapse coming out of the World Cup, World Rugby had no choice but to relent and agree to usher in a new era of professionalism.

If they hadn't, Packer would have taken off with the players and that would have been that – the end of test rugby as we knew it.

Because it wasn't a controlled transition, there were no well laid plans. There was no road map to follow and if everyone is honest, a fair bit was made up on the hoof.

Dan Carter of Racing 92 in action during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Racing 92 and Munster Rugby at Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir on January 7, 2017 in Colombes near Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

It's 21 years since the game turned professional and it is unrecognisable to the game it was in 1995. The list of things that have changed is endless. Now we have match day squads of 23 not 18 and tactical substitutions are allowed. In fact, tactical substitutions have become critical in the game with the strength of a team's bench often being the deciding factor.

Rarely in the Southern Hemisphere do they play international rugby in the day. It's all night tests and yet prior to 1996 not once had the All Blacks played on home soil under lights.

Now the top players can earn in excess of $1 million a season in New Zealand. There are some, such as Daniel Carter, who is earning close to $3 million a season in France. The best known players have endorsement deals and recognition in many countries.

It's encouraged for promising schoolboys to have agents and that's because many of them will be offered contracts before they leave school. It's even reached the stage were players as young as 17 will sign a full Super Rugby contract before their secondary education finishes.

Now we have lifting in the lineout, defences held back five metres from scrums and video referees influencing games. The jerseys are skin tight, but that doesn't matter because the payers are lean and fit. Boozing isn't really part of the picture any more and beer companies have lost their place as treasured sponsors.

We have Super 18 instead of Super 12 and teams from Japan and Argentina are involved. The Tri Nations has become the Rugby Championship and the Five Nations is the Six Nations. Sevens is in the Olympics and countries such as the USA and Kenya are world class at the abbreviated game.

Players don't really spiral punt any more – it's all end over end and teams don't stay out on the field at half-time. Nope, the old days of a two-minute turnaround with a bite of an orange while the captain extolled his troops to dig deep...they have gone.

Now it's a near 15-minute break back in the changing room where a team of coaches can show video evidence and all sorts to the players who rehydrate with energy drinks and the like.

After the game, players jump in ice baths and then hit the showers and then keep doing that until their blood is flowing, their muscles soothed and their recovery improved.

No one, other than Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter, is loyal to a province or Super Rugby team for life any more and players train and play with GPS trackers on so their every move can be recorded and analysed.

The only thing that has stayed the same through it all is that you can still buy cold chips and warm beer at the stadium.

A Brief History of Rugby Union 1823-2016

1823 – Legend has it that William Webb Ellis picked up the ball during a game of football at Rugby School, ran with it and in doing so, inspired the making of a new game that would come to be known as Rugby Football Union.

1843 – Guy's Hospital in London form a club which is recognised as the first in the world.

1845 – Pupils at Rugby School are asked to document the rules of the game they had been playing. These would be adopted across the UK.

1870 – The first game of rugby is played in New Zealand on May 3. It was between Nelson College and Nelson Football Club.

1871 – The first test match is played. Scotland take on England at Raeburn Place, the home of the Edinburgh Academical Football Club.

1883 – The first Sevens tournament is played. The venue was Melrose in the Scottish borders. It's also the first year the Home Championship – featuring Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland was played.

1886 – The International Rugby Board was founded. Ireland, Wales and Scotland all joined but not England who said they needed greater representation on account of having more clubs.

1888 - New Zealand Native team tours Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. On the longest tour ever, they play 107 matches, winning 78, drawing six and losing 23. The tour lasts for more than a year.

1892 – The New Zealand Rugby Football Union is formed.

1893 – Rugby is split in two by those who want it to be professional and those who don't. Rugby League is formed as a new code to allow those who want to be paid to breakaway.

1900 – Rugby first appears as a sport in the Olympic Games. France win the gold medal.

1905 – New Zealand's international side tours the UK for the first time. They played 35 and won 34. Their one defeat was against Wales – a contentious decision separating the two. This was the tour when the name All Blacks was given to the New Zealanders.

1910 – First test match is played at Twickenham. It's also the first year France are included in what became known as the Five Nations.

1921 – The IRB decide to introduce numbers on jerseys to help spectators identify players.

1925 – New Zealander Cyril Brownlie is the first man to be sent off. He was ordered to leave the field against England. The All Blacks still won and returned home from that tour undefeated in 32 games.

1931 – Bledisloe Cup is donated and first played for. New Zealand won it by defeating Australia 20-13 in Auckland.

1938 – The Calcutta Cup match between England and Scotland at Twickenham is the first game of rugby to be shown on TV.

1949 – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa become members of the IRB.

1968 – Injury replacements are permitted for the first time.

1973 – Gareth Edwards scores his legendary try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks.

1974 – Australian Michael O'Brien becomes recognised as the game's first streaker. He did his thing at Twickenham where the French were playing England.

1978 - Munster defeated the All Blacks sparking decades of literature, plays, songs and outrageous stories.

1986 – First women's international is played. Great Britain took on France.

1987 – The first World Cup is played. New Zealand and Australia jointly host the 16 teams who were invited.

1992 – Value of a try is increased to five points.

1994 – Philippe Sella of France becomes the first player to win 100 test caps.

1995 – The third World Cup hosted by South Africa paves the way for the game to turn professional. By September that year, the World Rugby had no choice but to re-write the rules and allow players to be paid.

1996 – Super 12 begins as does the Tri Nations. The All Blacks also play their first home test under lights. In Napier against Samoa.

1998 – The first official Women's World Cup is played. It was hosted by the Netherlands and won by New Zealand.

1999 – Lifting is sanctioned in lineouts. Before, lifters could only support the man after he had jumped.

2000 – Italy are invited to join the Five Nations and the World Sevens Series is launched. World Rugby also forced to tighten eligibility laws due to the infamous Grannygate business where Shane Howarth and Brent Sinkinson wrongly played for Wales and Dave Hilton wrongly played for Scotland.

2001 – World Rugby launch their awards. Keith Woods of Ireland was the first World Player of the Year. The New Zealand Rugby Players' Associations is formed.

2008 – The so-called Experimental Law Variations are trialled in Super Rugby.

2009 – It is announced that Sevens will be an Olympic sport from 2016.

2010 – Decision made to include Argentina in a revamped Tri Nations from 2012 that will be called the Rugby Championship.

2012 – The Head Injury Assessment protocol is introduced – effectively forcing anyone suspected of being concussed to be immediately tested.

2015 – Rules of the TMO are expanded to allow referrals for foul play and up to two phases back to check for the legality of tries scored.

2016 – Teams from Argentina and Japan join Super Rugby bringing the total number of teams to 18.

The Vault
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The Vault

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