27 August 1995: Rugby Union turns professional

Rugby, as everybody knows, is a game played by gentlemen – and ladies too. But it wasn’t always. That’s if we take the slightly old-fashioned meaning of ‘gentlemen’ to mean the public-school educated. Since the inception of the Rugby Football Union (RFU – England’s rugby governing body) in 1871, rugby was tremendously popular with the working classes in northern England, particularly in Yorkshire and Lancashire.

But that created a problem. The RFU insisted that to maintain the sporting spirit of the game, rugby had to be played by amateurs. The matches, however, were often played on Saturdays, which back then, was a working day. That meant lost earnings for the pit miners and factory workers who wanted to play. The solution for a number of northern sides was to pay ‘broken time’ to the players for the lost hours.

The RFU found this unacceptable. It was tantamount to being paid to play the game. Meetings to resolve the issue ended in deadlock, and in 1895, many of the northern clubs went off to found Rugby League – the other ‘code’ being Rugby Union. And that’s how things more or less stood for almost exactly 100 years.

But, of course, the world moved on. Professionalism was already creeping into the game by the 1980s. Many of the best Rugby Union players were quick to forget their 19th century scruples, and went off to play League rugby for the money.

Then came the first Rugby Union world cup at the end of the decade in 1987. While only just breaking even, it raised the profile of the sport. But it was during the third world cup in 1995 that the world really fell in love with Rugby Union. Who could forget that famous moment – that symbol of reconciliation following so closely on the apartheid era – when South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, handed the victorious white South African captain, Francois Pienaar, the trophy?

That year in 1995, Rupert Murdoch and fellow media mogul Kerry Packer flooded the sport with multi-million pound television deals – particularly in the southern hemisphere. Players started taking sponsorship payments, leading to accusations of ‘shamateurism’. Unable to hold back the tides of change, the International Rugby Board (IRB), now called World Rugby, agreed to do away with Rugby Union’s amateur status on 27 August – 20 years ago.

But while Rugby Union continued to attract ever larger amounts of money (the 2015 World Cup to be held in England in a few weeks is forecast to boost GDP by £982m), the salaries of the highest paid players still lag behind their football counterparts. Rugby Union’s highest earner, New Zealand’s Dan Carter, takes home a yearly salary of £1.4m. While that’s no paper round, Argentina’s football superstar, Lionel Messi, is on course to earn £26m this year in basic salary before bonuses. Rugby Union players still have a long way to go.

Also on this day

27 August 1859: The birth of America’s oil industry

On this day in 1859, Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, proving that his pioneering drilling techniques were economically feasible. Read more here.