Rugby went professional more than twenty years ago. Getting there nearly tore the game in two.
One cold winter’s night, Keith Quinn went to a party.
It was 1979 and down at the Hutt Valley Marist club they were holding a send-off for club stalwart Bernie Fraser. He was about to leave on his first overseas tour with the All Blacks.
Towards the end of the evening, an official came to Keith and asked a favour. The local businesses had held a whip-round and raised some money for Bernie. It was a gesture typical of the time, thoughtful and generous, meant to make sure Bernie didn’t suffer financially while off work playing for the national team.
The official wanted to know if Keith, one of the country's best known sports journalists, would present the money to Bernie.
Sure, said Keith.
“But I knew that I should have really been reporting this as a breach of the amateur rules.”
Rugby Union back then was an amateur game and had been since it was invented and codified in the mid-19th century. No one got paid to play, but not because there wasn’t any money in the game.
Australian journalist Peter FitzSimons played seven test matches for the Wallabies in 1989-90. He clicked to the truth early on.
“I was standing at the Sydney Football Stadium, singing the national anthem. And the stadium was a cathedral.”
As he sang, he let his eyes wander around the stadium.
“You’ve got 40,000 people here, Mum and Dad were paying $65…huh, there must be $2.7 million dollars flowing through the gates here and I’m on $50 a day!”
But the debutant couldn’t have cared less.
“It wasn’t about the money. It was about the honour of the jersey. And that was the glory of the game.”
But within a few short years, honour and glory were no longer enough for most top players. And in truth, some were already being paid.
They called it shamaterurism; amateurism in name only. Lots of sports did it. In rugby’s old days there was boot money; cash quietly stuffed in your boots after a game. Or generous gifts from good honest rugby fans like the business owners of Lower Hutt.
By the 1980s there were large expense payments, commercial sponsors for big sporting competitions and brand logos on team jerseys. Athletes of all kinds did ads and endorsements, implicitly trading off their sports profile. Everyone winked at the hypocrisy. Occasionally someone was nicked for it and the contradictions of the system would be laid bare.
In 1981, runner Anne Audain was banned for life from amateur sports after accepting a cash prize. Audain challenged the ruling, the ban was overturned and she won a gold medal at the 1982 Commonwealth Games.
Most rugby players, though, like FitzSimons, received only the equivalent of pocket money for playing at provincial or international level. Being away on a long tour was a considerable strain on a player’s finances and family. They often they had to use every bit of leave, paid and unpaid, that understanding employers were willing to extend. Some All Blacks have been on the dole.
Rugby League was professional and lots of good union players signed up, playing in competitions in Australia and the UK.
In 1993 a group of business people set up the All Blacks Club, to maximise commercial opportunities for players who wanted to stay in New Zealand.
“The rumours were they [players] were getting up to $100,000 a year just to be available for the All Blacks,” says Keith Quinn.
The rules were changing for a new generation of All Blacks, such as Ian Jones, but the guts and glory ethos still dominated; he wasn’t in it for the money. All the same, the All Black lock was a qualified electrician and found it difficult to work, train and play.
“I wasn’t spending as much time on the tools as I really should be.”
Ian went to work for Lion Breweries then Philips NZ; his bosses took care of him and he’s grateful. He considered himself a professional in both areas of his life; as an employee and as a player.
“We trained very professionally. Our attitude was very professional. I mean professionalism isn’t just about money, right?”
True. But money changes things. In late March 1995, war broke out.
It started on the rugby league fields of Australia. Or more importantly, on their TV screens.
Media magnate Kerry Packer held the TV rights to the Australian Rugby League (ARL) but rival Rupert Murdoch was establishing his pay TV network in Australia and needed a marquee sports event. He set up Super League, a rebel competition in direct opposition.
Both sides were armed with cheque-books.
“Murdoch sent his operatives out among rugby league players and signed them up in carparks at midnight,” says FitzSimons.
“They’d say ‘what’s your phone number, right, put a dollar sign in front of it, sign here’.
“And they did.”
Super League was also poaching union players. Packer summoned his people and asked for ideas to counter Murdoch’s raid. He got a big one from a Sydney lawyer called Geoff Levy.
Levy pitched the World Rugby Corporation or WRC - a global professional rugby franchise, played in Europe, America, the Pacific and Africa that would transform rugby into a global TV phenomenon. It was a glorious idea, dreamed up by a huge fan of the game. Packer put up $4 million of seed money and Levy brought in Ross Turnbull, a former Wallaby, and another lawyer called Michael Hill to get things going. Their plan was to sign up the players then convince the unions. They had the right man in Turnbull.
“Lawyer, very well-connected,” stresses FitzSimons, “and more chutzpah than would kill a brown dog".
“He was this unstoppable force.”
And so the war that started in league spread, and soon engulfed union.
The national rugby union boards looked at Super League, heard the whispers about WRC and weren’t slow to see the threat. In April 1995 they had quiet, private and satisfying talks with Rupert Murdoch.
Two months later, on 23 June 1995 - one day before the Rugby World Cup final - they put their cards on the table. At a press conference held at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, the South African, New Zealand and Australian rugby boards announced the SANZAR deal; 12 professional rugby teams, a tri-nations test series, all paid for by a $US555m TV rights deal.
Keith Quinn was there and remembers that while men in suits were announcing the end of amateur rugby, in the background, down on the field, the All Blacks were having their Captain’s Run, quietly passing a ball back and forth between them.
“It was like they were saying goodbye to the amateur era.”
SANZAR’s announcement was meant to be a Jonah Lomu-style sidestep around both Super League and WRC; deft, devastating and dismissive. It was the opposite of the WRC approach; convince the boards first, then the players.
So as South Africa overcame the vomiting All Blacks in that storied final, the future of the game was being decided by two billionaire, bumptious Australians. Rupert Murdoch had Super League and SANZAR. Kerry Packer had Australian Rugby League – the ARL - and was backing WRC. One side had tradition, pride and a good amount of actual money; the other had the big vision, the promise of big pay cheques and as time went on most of the players too.
Nearly 500 provincial and international players signed with WRC over the next few weeks, some of them men of great mana in the game; the All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick, Wallabies captain Phil Kearns and the new world champion Springboks captain François Pienaar. Pretty soon, WRC had the aura of being where real rugby was.
“For rugby to keep its integrity, for us to keep playing at the very highest level, it was almost one in, all in,” argues Ian Jones.
“Otherwise it wasn’t really the international game that we know and we love.”
When the news broke, officials, fans – and one rugby journalist - were furious. Peter FitzSimons wrote a scorching opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald that 24 years later he still remembers almost word for word.
“What is wrong with you blokes? Rugby is your mother. And now it happens that mum has come into a lot of money and you’ll get your fair share. But if that’s not enough for you, if you want mum to whore for you too, to squeeze out the last stinking dollar, and you’ll trash the jersey because of it..."
FitzSimons meant it, too, every word. But…
“It might have been a bit heated looking back on it.”
If this was a movie, we’d have a montage now for the next few weeks in rugby’s civil war. On 5 July; NZRU make their pitch, offering about a fifth of the WRC money, maybe $150,000 per player. They get an underwhelming response; but the trump card still to be played wasn’t money. It was mana.
Jock Hobbs and Brian Lochore start the fightback for NZRU. Hobbs travels the country tirelessly, trying to change players’ mind and get their signatures. Similar moves take place in Australia and South Africa. Players and officials start avoiding each other and tense exchanges occur when they can’t.
By the middle of July, most Australian and South African players have signed with WRC as well as players from Wales, France, Scotland and Western Samoa - and virtually every All Black. Momentum seems all one way but no one is counting their chickens.
On 3 August 1995 WRC organises a video linkup between representatives of the three big teams to confirm their commitment. Ten players from Australia and 10 from New Zealand show up. But only nine dial in from South Africa. Skipper Francois Pienaar was a no-show.
Pienaar had come under what FitzSimons describes as ‘appalling pressure’ to change his mind and re-sign with SARFU. The Springboks were no longer certainties. Ian Jones says it was the turning point.
“You can’t have rugby without an All Blacks-South African rivalry. It’s not international rugby.”
“That was the end, really, just about the end of the Packer fight.”
Support trickles away from WRC. Kerry Packer decides to stop the funding. The Springbok players sign with their official union. On 16 August the ARU announces all the Wallabies are back in the fold. Captain Phil Kearns says WRC is over.
The same day, NZRU calls a press conference to announce it's signed five provincial teams as well as two All Black stars: Josh Kronfeld and Jeff Wilson. Quinn remembers sitting down with an exhausted Jock Hobbs, who that day was so tired he hadn’t noticed he was wearing mismatched jacket and trousers.
Exhausted as he was, Hobbs was also triumphant. The next day the remaining All Blacks approached him to say they wanted to talk. A press conference is planned to announce their return. Sean Fitzpatrick agrees to front for the players.
“And Jock said ‘yeah and when you look at the news tonight, you’ll see him put down a can of coke on the table in front him,"says Quinn. "He has an endorsement from Coca-Cola coming his way."
“And sure enough, when I looked at the news that night there was can of Coca-Cola placed carefully in front of him.”
The Rugby War was over; the national unions had won, but the rules for future engagements had changed forever.
On 27 August 1995 the International Rugby Board announced that the game was no longer amateur.
In 1996, the first season of Super 12 rugby was won by the Auckland Blues. The All Blacks crushed the first Tri-Nations Championship and everyone who played got the honour and glory - and they also got paid.
In 1998 Super League kissed and made up with Australian Rugby League to form the NRL.
Players today sign multi-year deals worth millions of dollars - and they earn it. Our rugby year starts in February and ends in October or even November. The game is now a global brand thanks to TV rights broadcasting around the world.
In short, rugby in 2019 looks more than a bit like the WRC dream. Peter FitzSimon’s acknowledges that and calls Geoff Levy, Ross Turnbull and Michael Hill “fairly visionary”.
Rugby’s changed, there’s no doubt about it, and so has the world that plays and watches it. Now, 24 years after the Rugby War and with the amateur ethos now only at rugby's lower levels, do we love the game as much as we used to? Ian Jones has no doubt.
“Without question," he says.
"There is still an absolute love for our game and that pleases me.”
Keith Quinn isn’t so sure.
“I don’t think we do. But you’d have to ask the kids of today and they wouldn’t be able to judge it against the way the game was loved and admired in the “good old days”.
Peter FitzSimons is more convinced of a change.
“Well, I don’t [love it as much]. It doesn’t have the honour and glory, the compelling nature that it used to have for me.”
But he’s aware of how he might sound to younger fans and players.
“The three great traditions of rugby are shaking hands before the match, shaking hands after the match and retiring and whingeing that the game was much better in your day.”