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Tuesday, January 19, 1999 Published at 18:04 GMT

Rugby in crisis

Only frantic negotiations kept England in this year's Five Nations

Not so long ago, rugby union was being touted as the great boom area of English sport.

Back-to-back Grand Slams and a World Cup runners-up spot had put the England team at the forefront of national success stories.

High profile names like Will Carling, Jeremy Guscott and the Underwood brothers were pushing a minority sport to a new height of recognition, creating an unprecented level of public interest.

And the advent of the league system was bringing a competitive edge to the 'matey' world of club rugby.

But suddenly everything seems to have gone wrong.

Rugby World editor Paul Morgan discusses the Five Nations crisis with Nicky Campbell (5 Live)
This week, it was only last-ditch talks that saved England from the ignominy of being left out of the Five Nations, as rows over TV money threatened to paralyse the international game.

Clubs are faced with the prospect of merging or going to the wall, as the financial realities of top-class sport begin to bite.

Meanwhile, on the field England have been eclipsed by France in the Five Nations and utterly out-played - save for the odd shock result - by the southern hemisphere giants.

But how did rugby change so swiftly from box-office hit to tedious farce?

Professional in name only

Paul Morgan, editor of Rugby World magazine, is in no doubt as to the cause of the sport's crisis.

"It's all rooted in the headlong rush to professionalism," he says.

[ image: The redevelopment of Twickenham has proved costly for the RFU]
The redevelopment of Twickenham has proved costly for the RFU
"Four years ago the sport turned professional - but it wasn't ready for it and the game's rulers didn't prepare for it.

"Since then we've just had an endless round of boring and pointless battles between any number of megaphone egos."

In the early days of professionalism the cash came pouring in - but now the sport is haemorrhaging money, even in areas that on the surface appear healthy, including Twickenham itself.

"Last year the RFU lost £4.9m," says Morgan. "In that time they had six sell-out matches at Twickenham - they should be making cash, but they aren't and it's basically because of a huge loan they took out to pay for the development of the East Stand of the stadium.

"The RFU got ahead of themselves and that loan has been weighing them down ever since. The 1996 TV deal with Sky, which has caused so many problems with the other unions, was done to repay that money.

"There has been a distinct lack of leadership from the RFU. They are a multimillion pound concern, but for two years they didn't even have a chief executive.

[ image: RFU chairman Brian Baister faces a test of his stewardship]
RFU chairman Brian Baister faces a test of his stewardship
"Now they've got a chief executive, Francis Baron, and a chairman, Brian Baister, and this whole affair is a huge test of their leadership."

But the fault for the Five Nations impasse does not merely lie at Twickenham's door.

According to Morgan, the other home nations are also culpable, by recklessly indulging in "brinkmanship" and making public threats that would have better kept behind closed doors.

"I was always told that you don't offer an ultimatum unless you're prepared to keep it," he explains.

"The problem for Scotland, Wales and Ireland was that they kicked out the one team they all want to beat. The Five Nations needs England - without them it is not a valid tournament."

But rugby's problems are not just confined to the ructions within the international game.

[ image: Cup-holders Saracens have lost the man who masterminded their success]
Cup-holders Saracens have lost the man who masterminded their success
"Unfortunately, the game is in crisis from top to bottom," stresses Morgan.

There is one piece of news that has been overshadowed this week but, according to Morgan, is possibly even more significant than the Five Nations fiasco itself.

It was the departure of Saracens' marketing guru, Peter Deakin.

"Here was a man who had created the one resounding success story of English club rugby," Morgan adds. "But he was disillusioned with the whole thing, so what did he do? He went back to rugby league to become chief executive of Warrington.

"That, I think, is very telling - and far more worrying than the whole unseemly spectacle of seeing the home unions at handbags."

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