The final weekend of June 1995 was a big one for world rugby. New Zealand, with a young Jonah Lomu in their backline, were due to take on hosts South Africa in the last Rugby World Cup final of the amateur era.
All eyes were on Ellis Park in Johannesburg, where Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar would take centre stage, but much of the pre-match talk surrounded a momentous pronouncement.
On the eve of the final it had been announced that the three traditional powerhouses of southern hemisphere rugby, Australia, New Zealand and RWC 1995 hosts, South Africa had agreed a US$550 million deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
Given the sums involved, the deal pushed union ever closer to the open era, and a decision that had looked increasingly inevitable since the inaugural Rugby World Cup raised awareness, and the commercial attractiveness, of the game in 1987.
Meanwhile, admiring glances were being made towards the stars of RWC 1995 from rugby league clubs in both hemispheres, and a further threat to amateurism came in the shape of a potential breakaway competition, the World Rugby Championship (WRC).
Led by former Wallaby prop, Ross Turnbull, and financially backed by Kerry Packer, WRC needed 900 players to staff its proposed 30 franchises worldwide. According to Huw Richards’ book, ‘A Game For Hooligans’, 407 signatures had been collected by early August.
Richards writes that Rugby World Cup-winning coach, Kitch Christie urged Springbok players to turn down WRC and back their union “for the team, for the country, for yourselves and for what you’ve already achieved”.
“I believe the Packer proposal would have got off the ground, there was just too much money in the game for it to have not got off the ground,” former Springbok Hennie Le Roux said.
“What would have happened after that would have been an interesting debate. But I think it would have thrown rugby in serious turmoil.”
Ultimately, strong action taken by the unions headed off the threat of the WRC, but professionalism was at the top of the agenda when the International Rugby Football Board (now World Rugby) met in Paris between 24-26 August, 1995.
On 26 August, 1995, two months after the Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park, representatives from the nations comprising the International Rugby Football Board (now World Rugby) met at a Parisian hotel adjacent to the opera to decide the future of rugby union.
Rugby union had remained an amateur sport to that point. But that hadn’t stopped it from becoming big business. The world's top players were household names and the demands on their time ever-increasing. But they were getting no financial rewards. Something had to give.
For three days the talk around the table from the game’s leading decision-makers had been about tenners not tenors – despite the location – as rugby union reached a crossroads on the subject of professionalism.
Sticking with amateurism was not a viable option for the majority given the increasingly steady flow of rugby union players to rugby league and the very real threat of private commercial organisations contracting the world’s best players. To some die-hards, though, the thought of paying players was just as unpalatable as it had been 100 years before, when the ‘Great Schism’ occurred and the 13-man code was formed in the row over broken-time payments.
With the sport’s landscape changing before their very eyes, former World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset recalled how speed was of the essence.
“I think the most striking thing is how all the nations contributed to move forward quickly in a new system. It was very hard and very complicated for some nations. But quickly we found solutions that allowed us to have the best players, to have stars who began to be recognised by the media,” said Lapasset, who had not long succeeded Vernon Pugh.
The seeds of the transformation, however, had been sown 12 months earlier by his predecessor.
“We created an ‘amateurism committee’ the year before to define the legal foundations of our work. As a top lawyer as well as IRB Chairman at the time, Vernon knew rugby and the legal system inside and out and he drafted the changes, which became the legal foundations for the transformation of the game. He always sought to find solutions which allowed us to move forward toward professionalism while respecting the foundations and values of the sport.
“We held meetings over the course of the year to work through the detail, and we met in Paris to make the final decision.
“The unanimous vote of the whole IRB Council was required. We couldn’t have a single country not respecting the rules.
“We prepared a draft which was subject to a vote, item by item: Players’ status, nations, clubs, provinces, referees, the structure of competitions, a remuneration system.
“We put all the items on the table to find a solution that would allow us to be united.”