The International Rugby Board announced in 1995 that rugby was now a professional sport. So, it seems obvious that English rugby went pro in that year.
But the truth is more complicated. Before 1995, there were hidden benefits and payments in English club rugby in an era known as “shamateurism”.
And after 1995, the England rugby hierarchy fought the players to try to delay professionalism.
Let’s take a closer look at how rugby turned professional in England.
1980s – Jobs For The Boys
In the mid-1980s, English players believed that their counterparts in Wales, France, and South Africa were being paid under the counter.
Brian Moore, the England hooker at the time, stated this firmly in his autobiography (read our review, it’s a good book).
They also believed that while direct payments weren’t so blatant in Australia and New Zealand, those Unions had found a way around the amateur rules.
In Moore’s opinion, the Wallabies and the All Blacks arranged jobs for players that gave them unlimited leave for training.
But didn’t the “jobs for the boys” happen in England, too? Yes, in that the blazers and committee men in the big clubs could arrange entry for young players into careers in banks and other large financial or insurance companies.
For example, Peter Winterbottom (the England flanker) went from being a Yorkshire farmer to dealing in bonds. Will Greenwood worked as a broker in the City without prior experience.
Brian Moore was a solicitor, but Harlequins got him a job in corporate finance (he eventually moved back into law).
So, what was Moore complaining about? Well, the English players had to negotiate with their employers for time off without any help from their Union.
The RFU wouldn’t even give complimentary tickets to companies that gave generous leave to their rugby-playing employees. If players wanted to thank their employers, the tickets came out of their personal allocation.
1985 – The RFU Fight Against Professionalism (And The World Cup)
When the International Rugby Board (the IRB) discussed starting a World Cup, the RFU was one of the Unions that was firmly against the notion.
In fact, the RFU voted against the proposal in 1985. The English blazers were very clear on why they didn’t like the idea. They said that it would encourage professionalism because players from different countries would meet and discuss earnings.
What they were really concerned about was that the England players would learn about the potential for commercial earnings from the Southern Hemisphere teams.
The RFU was on the losing side of this debate But when the 1987 Rugby World Cup came about, it turned out that their fears were correct.
Brian Moore said that he returned from the tournament understanding more about how players had formed their own companies through which payments were channeled.
1990 – The RFU Fight The Players Over Payment
In the 1980s, Dudley Wood was the Chairman of the Amateur Status Committee in the RFU. This meant that he presided over meetings that decided whether a player had flouted amateur status.
For example, if players accepted money for giving a talk at a business event, they could be banned from playing for any rugby team.
So, it’s no surprise that the RFU continued its stance against professionalism when Wood was appointed Secretary in 1986.
In 1990, the International Rugby Board relaxed the laws on players earning money for off-the-field activities. They still weren’t to be paid for playing. But they could be paid for “communication”.
The England players had learned from their counterparts overseas. They formed a single company to take payments from sponsors.
But the RFU fought tooth and nail against this endeavor. For example, the players asked the BBC to pay £500 per year to cover interviews. They also contacted large companies to arrange appearances for payments.
The RFU would get wind of these talks and would contact the organizations themselves to say that these payments weren’t allowed under the new rules. Many potential sponsors backed away and the BBC refused to pay for interviews.
When England won the Grand Slam in 1991, the players stayed in the dressing room and refused to come out and talk to the press. This was a protest against the RFU’s stance.
If you’re curious about how strong a protest this was, I’ll tell you that Grand Slams are rare compared to “just” winning the title on points. We illustrate this in our article on Six Nations grand slam and title winners.
Early 1990s – The “Shamateurism” Years
Despite the best attempts of the RFU, the England players did start earning in the early 1990s.
For example, they would write a small article for a corporate newsletter or make an appearance at a business dinner. The sponsors would pay up to a thousand pounds for these contributions.
The players weren’t being paid for playing. Instead, they were getting paid over the odds for small “communication” pieces.
This was known as Shamateurism.
David Campese, the Australian winger, famously said that he became a millionaire during the amateur era.
It’s fair to say that the England players weren’t getting anything near big money for their “communications” efforts. Moore wrote that they earned about seven thousand pounds per year in 1993 and 1994.
Several leading players did much of the organization of efforts in moving toward professionalism. That included the England captain, Will Carling.
1995 – England’s Captain Sacked For Advocating Professionalism
Just before the 1995 World Cup, Will Carling sat down for a television interview.
He had grown increasingly frustrated over how the RFU was resisting change in how the sport was run in England. In a moment that he didn’t think was recorded, he told the interviewer that the 50-man committee running English rugby was out of touch with the modern game.
His remark was caught on camera and made headlines around the rugby world.
If the game is run properly as a professional game, you do not need 57 old farts running rugby.
The 57-man committee promptly had a meeting and removed Carling as captain. They could move fast when they wanted!
Of course, they needed a captain going into the World Cup tournament. One by one, the senior England players were asked to accept the captaincy. They all refused.
The RFU had to back down and reinstate Carling. He went on television to apologize, which saved some face in the corridors of power. But the amateur ethos was slipping away from the RFU.
1995 – England Resists As Other Countries Turn Professional
In 1995, the International Rugby Board announced that the sport was now professional. All laws against paying players for playing were dropped.
Does that mean that English rugby went professional in 1995? Not exactly.
Technically, the entire sport went professional. But the RFU tried one last rear guard action.
They announced a moratorium on professionalism for a year.
Other Unions were now paying their international players. But England players would have to wait while the RFU spent a year of committee meetings discussing the matter.
It was ridiculous. It was also very damaging for English rugby as the big clubs scrambled to fill the vacuum left by the RFU’s inaction.
1995-96 – English Club Rugby Goes Professional
With clubs now allowed to pay players, there was a free-for-all scramble by the big clubs for the best players.
Of course, most clubs in England retained their amateur status. But the clubs in the elite league took quick steps to become professional.
Most changed into limited companies and offered shareholdings for substantial investment. I cover this journey in articles that review the ownership of each of the Premiership clubs. You can get the links in this roundup of Premiership owners.
The massive problem was that there were no guidelines or salary caps coming from the top hierarchy. Instead, clubs offered big transfer fees and contracts in a bidding war that simply raised player earnings above what the English rugby market could support.
Most of the Premiership clubs went significantly into debt in the late 1990s. Some nearly went bankrupt.
It took years for many clubs to shake off the millstone of debt from those times.
What kind of pay do players get now?
Are you curious about the current levels of payment? Check out our article on how much England players earn for club and country.
What About Rugby League?
Rugby League went professional around the turn of the 20th Century. The sport broke away from Rugby Union largely to get away from the strictly amateur ethos.
However, League didn’t move to fully-paid players right after its inception in 1895. You can learn about how the status evolved in our article on the early history of Rugby League and professionalism.