By Rob Smith
April 10 2012
It was the summer of 1995, Wasps FC on pre season tour in Holland. Beautiful sunshine and having a great few days playing matches against some Dutch rep teams and a team from Wales, Pontypridd I think. Having just finished a pool game and looking forward to a relaxing evening the phone rings. It was a journalist from one of the broadsheets, Sunday Times I think. “Rob can you give me your reaction to the IRB ruling the game to go “open” , it was August 1995.
Having endured several seasons of players and officials articulating anecdotes of this and that occurring at such and such club, at last we had a clear decision on the future of the game. I ran back into the changing rooms and informed the players of the IRB ruling. I think it would be fair to say this generated some excitement and led to a pretty heavy and long night, so much for the relaxing evening. Fortunately the rugby was done and dusted with the tournament trophy in the bag. Many important and influential players in this period of the club history were on this tour, some may not have travelled but you can get a flavour from the web site list here - http://www.wasps.co.uk/SquadDisplay.ink?team=P&season=94/95&seasonl=1994/1995 - Nice trousers.
The can of worms was well and truly open. What could we do , how do we react to this announcement, how do we stay at the top of the game, lots of questions but as always top of my mind was the board at the club at Sudbury (now at Twyford Avenue) dedicated to “Those Who Played The Greater Game”, sense of duty we needed to do our best for Wasps.
The RFU were reluctant to embrace the IRB ruling, instead trying to buy time to consider their options. Unfortunately momentum in England was rapidly building, driven by Australia, South Africa and New Zealand who happily embraced the ruling and were busily securing their senior players under contract. The RFU were focussing on the structure, Club, Divisional and International pathways, the existing pathways. However the clubs were focussed on securing the players. He who had the players dictated the structure, a big error from the RFU.
In Wasps best interests, remembering in terms of financial clout, Wasps had massively overachieved year on year on the field, continually running the likes of Leicester and Bath close and even coming out on top on occasions, but we had little money, hence to me a good course of action would be for the RFU to centrally contract the leading players enabling us as we stood to still be competitive. Simple fact was clubs with the money would attract the best and I was fearful we would lose out.
To this end I entered into direct conversations with Bill Bishop, the then President of the RFU to propose this as the best option. To my surprise Bill was in total agreement and informed me he was promoting this as a best option within the RFU Committees. It is worth considering the timescales involved here, IRB ruling late August 1995, we are now only in early Sept 1995. Peter Jackson of the Mail published my draft proposals, which put simply would have secured the leading 200 players for an outlay of around £4 million and crucially secured control of the game – just as NZ, SA and AUS Unions had done. Poor Bill Bishop a great, great man, I remember my last conversation with him where he was in despair at the lack on vision from the Committees. The RFU announced a Moratorium in mid Sept 1995.
Meanwhile back at Wasps preparations were building to start to contract the players. The club were developing plans to build a suitable stadium at Sudbury, budgets were offered to me and I started presenting offers to the players. Talk of entering the AIM market to generate revenue were steaming ahead, I was receiving contacts almost weekly from potential investors. However my task was to pick the team and win the games. Our future depended pretty much on the squad ending the season high enough up the League to secure a spot in the top flight. What happened next is another story.
Rob - timed to perfection given today's news!