Our rugby teams want to play with the best but can they pay with the best?
Private backing may be the only way the provinces can compete with the financial muscle of French and English
Rocky Elsom (left) is tackled by George Chuter and Tom Croft of Leicester in the 2009 Heineken Cup final. The signing of Elsom has hugely important in the Irish province making the big breakthrough in claiming victory in Europe’s premier competition. Photograph: Graham Stuart/Inpho
Back in the summer of 2008, Michael Cheika asked (more likely thumped the table and screamed) for an influx of quality overseas players. Leinster delivered, duly adding three high-class internationals in Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom and CJ van der Linde to a squad already featuring Felipe Contepomi and Chris Whitaker.
The following May they lifted the Heineken Cup for the first time in Murrayfield after beating Leicester.
Nacewa would be joined by Heinke van der Meuwe, Richardt Strauss, Stanley Wright and Nathan Hines when regaining the trophy against Northampton two years later, with Nathan White and Brad Thorn coming in for Wright and Hines when Leinster retained the Cup 12 months on with their win over Ulster.
When Munster first reached their Holy Grail in 2006, it’s doubtful whether they could have done so without Trevor Halstead – whose best three games of his Munster stint were in the knock-out stages, culminating in his try-scoring finale against Biarritz in a match-day squad also featuring Shaun Payne and Federico Pucciarello.
Two years later, the hugely influential Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi formed the midfield partnership in the win over Toulouse, with Paul Warwick on the bench.
Tired of watching their provincial rivals make the knock-out stages as they failed to do so for 11 years, Ulster went to the IRFU in 2010 and implored them to back a recruitment drive focusing on high-quality internationals.
That summer Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Pedrie Wannenburg arrived to supplement BJ Botha, and a year later they acquired Jared Payne and, in replacing the Munster-bound Botha, John Afoa.
Ulster have reached the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the last four seasons, including the final two seasons ago.
All of this is stating the blindingly obvious, but is worth underlining in the week when Matt O’Connor bemoaned the IRFU’s policy of nurturing indigenous players ahead of recruiting world-class imports.
“There are a lot of blokes globally that would come and play for Leinster but that’s not the reality,” he said. “It is for no other reason except the Union say that you can’t have them.”
Most likely his comments can be taken in the context of a quarter-final defeat away to the expensively assembled globe-trotting galacticos at Toulon, who contributed just two players to France’s Six Nations campaign (and one to Italy’s) whereas Leinster supplied 17 to Ireland’s title-winning effort.
Back in 2008, the provinces were entitled to have six foreign players – three top-end internationals and three less expensive recruits. That has since dipped to four plus one special project, a la Strauss and Payne.
Furthermore, the IRFU have assumed a more restrictive role in what players they will permit the provinces to recruit.
The Six Nations is the IRFU’s main cash cow, and by dint of winning the title the Union earned a €5 million-plus bonus, about €3 million more than they budgeted for. Nonetheless, between bonus payments and rentals of the Aviva, they missed out on another €1.5 million last weekend due to the defeats for Ulster and Leinster – not to mention the estimated €20 million boost apiece to Dublin’s economy for semi-finals in the capital.
Furthermore, their thinking might alter in the light of meritocratic qualification via the Pro12 coming into being for the new European Rugby Champions Cup, all the more so if the new competition increases the financial returns from the club/provincial game. Akin to football, who’s to say where European club rugby will be in five years’ time?
For example, were the Champions Cup to yield more than the initial target, the first €4 million has been earmarked mostly for the Irish and Welsh Unions to the tune of about €1.8million each, not unreasonably on the grounds they supply four teams to European competitions whereas the Scots and Italians supply two apiece.
What has also changed is the financial muscle of French and English clubs backed by wealthy benefactors and much improved television deals following the emergence of BT and beIN Sport in Britain and France; witness the five-year deal with Canal+ which more than doubled the French clubs’ income from €32 million per annum to €71 million.
As it is, it’s questionable whether Toulon, with over 20 international players drawn from outside France and at least 10 players estimated to be on €500,000 or more a year, stay within the notional €10 million playing budget, or that Racing Metro do so.
“Private money makes it more difficult,” admits Leinster CEO Mick Dawson, “and even clubs who don’t have big, private money, if they’re getting more money from their own leagues and from the European competition, it is going to be more difficult. So I think we’re going to have to fight even harder to make sure our indigenous players are up to it, and be cleverer in the market as well.”
The Irish provinces have plenty going for them with English-speaking cities, a track record and the added incentive of the government’s tax rebate if they retire here, as Nacewa did after five years, but in the heel of the hunt, as Dawson also admits: “If Toulon and Leinster want the same player, there’s a good chance he (Mourad Boudjellal) is going to outbid us.”
With the Quinn Roux project not having come to fruition, and Andrew Goodman hors de combat for the season with two Achilles injuries, Leinster are in the market for a high quality lock a la Hines or Thorn, all the more so with Leo Cullen retiring, and a centre for the post-Brian O’Driscoll years.
Ulster have retained Pienaar and Nick Williams, and signed 25-year-old South African tighthead Wiehahn Herbst on a three-year deal, while they’re looking for two more imports, especially a lock as well given Muller’s retirement.
Munster have retained BJ Botha, CJ Stander and Gerhard van den Heever, but could not compete with Racing Metro for Casey Laulala so are prioritising at least one centre and possibly a scrumhalf with their remaining overseas signing and project player.
However, as Dawson also points out: “It’s very difficult to acquire international quality players between now and the (2015) World Cup. I think you’ll see England, France, Ireland, Wales and everybody is going to struggle to get the quality in this year, but next year the market will be running amok.”
Heightened financial power
What’s also changed is the heightened financial power of the English. For example, whereas the Premiership clubs were unable to out-bid the provinces in the market place for either Irish players or foreign players, not alone have their budgets increased from €4.8 million to €6.15 million in the last year or two, they are also entitled to one marquee signing in the €500,000-plus bracket.
Hence Ulster could not have matched Gloucester’s handsome three-year offer to John Afoa. In the circumstances, having learned from the Johnny Sexton saga, the IRFU did well to stave off Toulon’s offers for Seán O’Brien (at the death) and Jamie Heaslip, as did Ulster with Pienaar.
One imagines the union will have to look at taking a leaf out of the New Zealand module by endorsing private backing as well as sponsorship within the provinces for the retention of home-grown internationals or acquisition imports, although one must wonder if indeed that hasn’t already happened in the case of O’Brien and Heaslip.