- Rugby union turned professional 20 years ago today in 1995
- Rob Andrew relives the exciting moments that rugby changed forever
On 26 August 1995, the International Rugby Board declared rugby union an "open" game, effectively removing all restrictions on payments and benefits. For the first time, rugby union was now a professional game. Former England fly half describes what it was like to be a player at that time.
Rob, take us back to 1995 and the game going professional, what are your memories?
“It was a very exciting time. It was just after the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa and there was a lot of talk between 1991 and 1995 about whether the game would go professional. Well, it was more like when it would go professional rather than if. That change came in late August 1995.
“The first phase was really a bit chaotic, if I’m honest, because the IRB at the time suddenly announced the game was open so we went from being a total amateur sport to being professional overnight. We all looked at each other and said ‘well now what happens?’
“It didn’t take very long for things to happen as entrepreneurs got involved, people started buying clubs and within literally weeks the landscape had been changed so it was a very exciting time.”
Had there been a sense among the players that this was going to happen?
“I think the 1991 Rugby World Cup – the last time we hosted it – was a launch pad to something else. It was a launch pad to the game moving forward and the demands on the players, the amount of money in the sport, the media interest – it felt, as players, in that 1991 to 1995 period that it was inevitable that the game was going to go professional. It was just a case of how and when.
“There was a lot of talk in South Africa around the 1995 Rugby World Cup about the game going professional. But it probably slightly took us by surprise when the decision was taken so quickly. It was almost left hanging and then everyone had to make their own arrangements, which happened in the following six to 12 months.”
How much of a difference did professionalism make at that time?
“Fundamentally it completely transformed the game because prior to that point it was an amateur sport and we all worked for a living. So we would play international or club rugby, train on a Tuesday and Thursday and then played on the weekend and went back to work on a Monday, even as an international player. That was what you did.
“All of a sudden you were a professional athlete and it was your full-time job. People were leaving careers they had been in for some time and taking a risk of being a full-time professional rugby player. Clubs were then having to work out how they paid for this because prior to this, as an amateur sport, the clubs didn’t really have any costs so overnight it transformed the structure of the sport and we probably spent the first five years at least trying to work out who paid for what and how the system worked.
“It was really exciting but it was also seat-of-the-pants stuff as well and people were making it up as they went along for at least five years if not longer – some would say we are still making it up!
“We are 20 years in and we have learned some lessons and we are moving to a place where the sport is established as a professional sport and we are trying to make it stronger.”
Were players scrambling around for contracts when it was announced?
“Yes, absolutely. It was literally a case of who bought clubs, who was giving offers of contracts, who was willing to leave their jobs to sign a contract and this probably continued for at least 12 months if not longer.
“Looking back through history, most of the clubs found a way of paying players in that first 12 months and Newcastle were one of the first out of the blocks because the football club bought the rugby club and I was up there within a month of the game going professional.”
Rob, you took over as Director fo Rugby at Newcastle, how did that come about?
“It was an absolute whirlwind. The game went professional at the end of August and within three weeks Newcastle United bought the old Gosforth Rugby Club in early to mid-September. I spoke to them about things and within three weeks I had left my job as a chartered surveyor in London and I was in Newcastle trying to work out what I was going to do in the Director of Rugby-player role in what was a second division side. Then I set about trying to persuade some of my friends to come to join me and I carried a case load of contracts around with me trying to sign people up as we were just trying to make it up on a daily basis regarding what happens next.”
Rob Andrew played alongside a young Jonny Wilkinson at Newcastle. Take a look at some highlights below:
What have been the long-term benefits and changes of going professional?
“The benefits to the game in terms of the quality of the rugby and the professionalism that we are now getting used to after 20 years, you just have to look at the quality of the athletes and the skill on display.
“In the amateur game we did our best and trained as hard as we could but there were limitations to what we could do. It is all relative I guess as the sport was entertaining back then.
“The sport was always going to go professional so it was not a case of turning the clock back. It was a question of managing professionalism. I think we have done a good job in relation to managing professionalism, we have a lot of young players coming through the system and we have a lot of interest in the sport, as you can see from the Rugby World Cup that is about to start.
“It has not been without its challenges undoubtedly and with money brings challenges, pressures on coaches, players and administrators but I think on the whole, the game is in a good place. We have kept the values of the amateur game, the ethos of the sport is alive – whether that is in relation to respect for officials or respect for fans and players and players and other players. I think that is a big plus.
“We have made mistakes and that happens but the sport is generally in a very buoyant position at the moment. We must guard against complacency but I think everybody can be proud of the way we have managed the transition into professionalism from a standing start overnight without anybody knowing how we were going to do it. There is always some conflict and issues but I think the sport is in a really good place.”