IRFU and players must tackle issue of what is the true value of the modern player
The union’s negotiating stance over contracts shows a reluctance to reward elite players
Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip: stars such as the Leinster forward and Seán O’Brien sell success and seats. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
I left 2013 with a column on mental messages of the mind and I enter 2014 with the mental mind games regarding the current posturing over player contracts. I believe in the concept of instructional self-talk; the act of giving ourselves mental messages. Of course the IRFU have their stars too and I wonder what mental messages are rattling around therein?
Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole was hardly referring to Irish rugby in his New Year’s Eve opinion piece, “What makes us world champions at fecking off”. The rugby irony is plan B: “Fecking off” is the last thing on our players’ minds. Almost uniquely they want to stay at home and are happy to accept a financial cost to this. But in establishing true value the modern player is often unfairly labelled as selfish. This betrays a lack of understanding of professionalism because at the core of every elite athlete is a selfish drive for success and the sacrifices they make should be rewarded.
Initially, Plan A was getting the elite players back into the provinces. Now Plan A has a hybrid in Plan B in an effort to depress salaries. Meanwhile, the rugby world outside our borders are replete with cash. In this environment it would appear the union are happy to leak the odd star as a double win; massive savings and control the body. If the top earner’s earnings drop, then the receding tide drops all boats.
For all of Leinster’s achievements, fundamentally, the province has built an immense brand that has become successful with a considerable body of local talent, augmented with serious imports. However, at Franklin’s Gardens Leinster humiliated Northampton 7-40 with an all-Irish starting pack and back line.
There are many more brilliant Irish players waiting in the wings for their chance: Jordi Murphy in particular has the ball-carrying ability to step into any “Irish” backrow. He is powerful, quick, and has that X-factor – an extremely intelligent footballing brain crucial at number eight. With such talent, and more besides, why worry if Jamie Heaslip and Seán O’Brien head off?
The pendulum of professional sport swings between success and slide. In either era the stars sell success and seats – and Heaslip and O’Brien have that ability. The graveyard is full of indispensable people and in time these stars will be replaced, but the brand as represented by season ticket sales may take longer to repair in times of a slide.
More than 10 years ago severe financial pressure boiled within the IRFU and there was a mood to kill Connacht. The Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association along with Connacht player representatives met with IRFU people and the “grave” financial climate was wheeled out to highlight the challenges facing the union. The Save Connacht Rugby protest march was in 2003 eight years into the professional era where not one corporate box existed in Irish professional rugby, but did throughout Europe. The consequence of failing to capture the tide of professionalism was to punish 25 per cent of its playing staff. Is the IRFU negotiating style another example?
My understanding is simple: the Irish pay packet will never compete with foreign cash and players accept this. It is also my understanding that a simple financial matrix computes that one rugby euro in Ireland could equate to €1.25 in France. Therefore the IRFU will never have to match the money for the Irish player to achieve parity! Then there is player welfare and allegiance and, of course, winning in a familiar jersey, which is hugely important.
Solutions are hard to come by but the single most critical improvement could be communication.
My understanding is that both parties (IRFU and Heaslip) had agreed terms but what now? If the union’s financial claims are influencing their ability to meet players’ growing needs then why prioritise stadium mortgages over players. Why also drag out negotiations well into the last season of a contract?
Why is the Munster coaching ticket’s contracts and Paul O’Connell’s still only
“progressing”? What’s taking Munster so long to tie up Rob Penney and the rest? Do they want him or not? Is there a sticking point between the union and agent?
One solution could involve a greater input from the provinces, such as top-up money from provincial banks. The most valuable players should get paid the most. Another could be: if you’re not going to pay me more, pay me for longer. Would a long-term approach aid player concerns? Why did Conor Murray only sign a two-year extension? Was he keen to keep his options open? Was he concerned with Munster’s future or would the IRFU only back him for two years? I wonder would all parties sign a six-year top-end deal as a true reflection of Murray/Heaslip/O’Brien’s true value with both parties taking the obvious risks associated. How would this affect agents? Three contracts versus one over six years. Different agendas?
At its most succinct the challenge confronting the IRFU and player is simple: what is the correct Irish value? The union have been depressing that value over recent seasons and the players have, in the main, accepted this. But I fear we have crossed the Rubicon with Johnny Sexton. The Welsh template frightens me with the stars heading off. In Irish society O’Toole would tell us that “we’re brilliant at Plan B. We do emigration better than we do anything else.” To paraphrase his words, “I hope that we don’t see our world champions fecking off.”