Sexton may do the business on the pitch but Mr Five Per Cent calls the real shots
“I’m the guy you don’t usually see. Im the one behind the scenes. I’m the sports agent.”
– Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire (1996)
Let’s start by showing you the money. A young player entering a provincial academy in Ireland is doing well to be on €5,000 a year. It can get upped to €10,000 if you make an immediate impact. Get yourself onto the periphery of the first team squad or show potential in a specialist position and a development contract worth between 20 and 35 grand may need your signature.
Become a valued member of the squad and you are looking at a full contract that could start as low as €40,000. The average wage for an established professional rugby player in this country is between €150,000 and €200,000 a year.
The cream that rises to the top can expect €400,000-plus and maybe, just maybe, can become the Irish face of a mobile phone company.
Compare this to the reported €750,000 Racing Metro ’92 have paid to lure Jonathan Sexton to Paris and it becomes evident just how small the Irish market is.
A line has been drawn in the sand by Fintan Drury, Sexton’s agent.
“There is a notion that the union has power because it can threaten Joe Bloggs by saying, ‘If you go to France you won’t get picked for Ireland’,” explains Drury. “Logically, and in time as the sport develops, more players will say, ‘So what? If I go to France I could be paid twice what I’m paid here. My job is to play rugby and to get paid as much as I possibly can to play rugby’. It is a job.”
By the way, if you ever get into the top-earning bracket don’t even bother walking into contract negotiations with Maurice Dowling, the IRFU’s HR director, without a piece of paper bearing the letter heading of a Top 14 club.
A French offer has become an essential negotiating tool.
Players don’t want to talk money. They want to focus on the game. That’s why God, some time between the sixth and seventh day, in the early hours, created sports agents.
The market is flooded with them. In the past two years alone 38 names registered as representing professional rugby players in Ireland. Do the sums: five per cent of the player’s wage goes to his representative.
They all saw a gap in the market. Every single one of them. Of the 18 people we spoke to for this article, six commented aloud, off the record, it has become like the “wild west”.
So, who is the quickest gun?
The sheriff in Deadwood, trying to introduce some form of regulation, is IRUPA chief executive Omar Hassanein.
The genial Australian set up a regulatory scheme in his own country, leaving him well placed to police this new landscape.
“The big question, once we have a scheme in place, is do we let everyone in the tent and see how we go or do we take a more competitive approach, which they do in New Zealand, by only accrediting about nine or 10 agents?
“In Australia we took a different approach. There were up to 65 agents and you were accepted providing you didn’t have a criminal record or declared bankruptcy or had no conflict of interest, like, for example, you can’t be the manager of a rugby club and become an agent as well. Or you can’t be a current player.”
The International Rugby Board IRB guidelines, followed by English agents, are more likely to be adopted.
The main role of a rugby agent is contract negotiation. The agent earns that five percent as the union offer a number of advantages. The structures for one, and Charle McCreevy’s tax rebate.
“It is going to go eventually, unless we come out of recession,” says one observer who didn’t want to see their name in print.
The marshall in Deadwood is Dowling, and the chief justice is the union’s honorary treasurer, Tom Grace.
Grace makes the final judgment yet never attends negotiations between agent and union.
Time is also on their side. Contract talks for a deal that ends this summer, say Rob Kearney’s, tend not to begin until January, while most French recruitment is completed before Christmas.
The down side is the likes of Kearney, a guaranteed Lions tourist, must prepare for the upcoming Six Nations with his future uncertain, the biggest contract of his career not yet agreed.
Understandably agents – Kearney’s father, David senior, acts on his behalf – did not wish to comment during these fragile moments of negotiation.
The agents can be broken up into categories: The originals (John Baker and Drury), the former player (the likes of Niall Woods, Frankie Sheahan, Conor O’Loughlin and Keith Matthews), the foreign agent and the Dad (Kearney, Frank Cullen and Frank ODriscoll).
The latest arrivals are IKON. Formed six months ago by Damien O’Donohoe, a contract lawyer, and Simon Moran, a promoter and music manager – his clients include The Script and The Stone Roses – IKON landed on to the scene in a similar fashion to how Ian Brown and John Squire of the aforementioned ’Roses unleashed their eponymous debut album in 1989.
O’Donohoe already represented Cian Healy but they made immediate waves by enticing Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip away from Drury’s Platinum One stable.
O’Donohoe, a 32-year-old Clontarf man, also works for Denis Desmond’s MCD promotions and was a decent schoolboy rugby player in Belvedere College before injury struck. IKON was a chance to go into business with two old friends, Brian O’Driscoll and Damien Duff.
“They are mentors for our younger clients, full stop,” says O’Donohoe. “Every football and rugby player in the country could learn so much from these guys in terms of how to carry themselves both on and off the field. They are inspirational people and fantastic role models and I am very privileged to work with them.”
Of course, football is where the real money exists. Even the five per cent from a Heaslip or Sexton contract pales in comparison. Earlier this month O’Donohoe brokered Stephen Kelly’s €1.4 million move from Fulham to Reading. He represents four other footballers playing in England.
“I personally negotiate all of our players’ contracts,” O’Donohoe explains. “Ciarán Medlar, a tax partner in BDO, looks after our clients’ financial planning, while Enda McNulty, who is a sports psychologist and performance consultant, is another key figure on our team.”
IKON, in theory, should be a real live threat to Platinum One, but Drury isn’t feeling the heat. At all.
“We are competing with football agencies in England that are multiples of our size and we survive in that market, so newer entrants in rugby are to be regarded but not feared,” says Drury, who represents 80 footballers in the UK, approximately 30 of them Irish, employing six full-time agents.
“We’ve been around for 22 years. We’ve lost players who were attracted by the idea of an agency associated with Brian O’Driscoll – that’s understandable on one level – but it doesn’t influence me or have any impact on me one way of the other. You would rather not lose players but in this industry when you lose clients not all of them can be material to the success of your business.”
On asking Drury about the current state of the market, he shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, ‘Try a few weeks swimming through the shark-infested waters during the English transfer window’.
He replies: “I think there are a lot of people involved who see it as being almost glamorous. Looking from the outside they may have thought it had more value to it than it does in reality.
“The rugby market is tiny, the Irish rugby market is really, really small. The potential for Irish-based agents to make serious money is pretty slim.
“I think there are very few people who are very good at it. Some of the more established players will have longevity. I think Ryan (Constable) is excellent.”
Biggest rugby agency
Drury lets this compliment for the biggest rugby agency in Ireland, Constable’s Cornerflag Management Ltd, wash over the conversation. An Australian, who played centre for Ulster and coached the Ireland Sevens, until the IRFU dumped the notion, Constable started the business in 2003 with Paddy Wallace’s father, Paul, and David Humphreys, no longer involved due to a conflict of interest, being Ulster’s director of rugby, seated on the other side of the table.
“The way we roll as a business is once we get more than six in a squad we stop looking for any more,” says Shaun Longstaff of UK firm Top Marque Sports, who look after Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy and 14 other Irish players spread across four provinces.
“We don’t want to be seen to be too cosy with any club. You might speak to another agent who has nearly 30 players in a provincial squad.” We did.
Cornerflag’s website states they are a “boutique sport and media talent agency, which prides itself on the personal relationships that transcends the typical client agent dynamic”.
It seems a contradiction for the biggest agency on the island to label themselves as “boutique” but they are the most successful. The five per cent of 55 contracts ensures that.
Along with most of the Ulster squad, Constable has also signed John Muldoon, Mike McCarthy, Felix Jones and Kevin McLaughlin, among others.
“Again it comes back to the whole “Jerry Maguire” idea of giving personal service for a small group of players as opposed to having loads of clients,” explains Niall Woods, former IRUPA CEO turned agent.
“Some of the bigger global agents work off churning contracts, they would have 200 plus players, maybe. At the moment I have 15. I could take a few more, possibly, but I also have four of Ireland’s leading cricket players and I represent some sports media personalities (Keith Wood, Dave McIntyre and Darragh Maloney).”
Original rugby agent
The original rugby agent in Ireland is John Baker. The one-time importer of animal feed for race horse trainers, has brokered three of the more storied deals in Irish rugby: Trevor Brennan’s surprising yet hugely successful switch to Toulouse in 2002, Eddie O’Sullivan’s controversial four-year contract renewal before the 2007 world cup and the recent loan deals for Peter Stringer.
“I’ve been trying to convince everybody in Irish rugby to let people out on loan, looking how it works in soccer,” said Baker. “It certainly worked for Strings last season, and now with Bath.
“For young players coming through who need to play first team rugby, rather than sitting on the bench or A rugby.
“The loan means the province still owns the players but his wages are being paid by the club he goes to so it saves the union or province money. It makes sense but it took a while for them to let Strings go.”
Baker has also negotiated several book deals in recent years: for O’Sullivan, Alan Quinlan, Bernard Jackman, Donncha O’Callaghan and John Hayes. There is a book in him, too, and the publishers know it. Negotiating the fee might prove difficult ...
The most heard sentence during this encounter? “... but I’d prefer not to be quoted ...”
Rugby agents Leading players
The outsider: Shaun Longstaff (Top Marque)
Notable clients: Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy.
How did you become a rugby agent? I’m a former player (Kiwi capped by Scotland) and current chairman of the (English) association of agents. The Irish market, historically, has been quite family-orientated . That is changing now. The agent who does it for a job – like me – does it 80 hours a week. He comes in because without the knowledge of what is going on in each club in Europe and Japan and through to the southern hemisphere, how do they know the value they have?
Should there be regulation? Omar Hassanein set up a really good scheme in Australia and we in the ARA were right behind the English scheme.
The biggest: Ryan Constable (Corner Flag)
Notable clients: Stephen Ferris and François Louw.
How did you become a rugby agent? In 2003 I was in the last year of my playing with Ulster and a couple of the players asked if there was anyone I could recommend, so I said I would have a conversation on their behalf without any financial reward.
After doing half a dozen of those and the players being comfortable with the outcome, I recognised the business opportunity. Fortuitous timing and the lack of competition in the market gave us a headstart.
Should there be regulation? We welcome it. Absolutely. It is very important to maintain the ethics and integrity of those who represent the players to ensure they get the best service.
The original agent: John Baker (BSMG)
Notable clients: Paul O’Connell and Eddie O’Sullivan.
How did you become a rugby agent? Twig Miller, Eric’s Dad, rang me, knowing I was friends with Peter Wheeler in Leicester. When the game went professional soon after, Twig asked me to do the contract.
A few months later Malcolm O’Kelly’s mother was on. Reggie and Victor followed. I was representing Alan Quinlan so that opened the Munster connection. Then Matt Williams came into my life. Then Eddie.
Should there be regulation? Well, it is regulated to some degree. There is a guaranteed fee structure, but that means foreign agents are coming into the market.
The newest: Damien O’Donohoe (Ikon)
Notable clients: Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy
How did you become a rugby agent? I qualified as a lawyer before going to work in the music business for Denis Desmond in MCD.
Throughout the years friends of mine in sport had asked me to negotiate or review their contracts.
It was something I was very passionate about and when we looked at this whole area we took the view that there was a gap in the market for a company with a different approach.
Rugby, football and music are the main areas of focus at the moment. In rugby the players transition into their next career is paramount to us.
Should there be regulation? Absolutely. You should either be a registered lawyer or licensed agent. As a lawyer, I am governed by the Law Society so this puts players’ minds at ease as there are very strict rules that I have to abide by, unlike agents.
The football agent: Fintan Drury (Platinum One)
Notable clients: Jonathan Sexton and Luke Fitzgerald.
How did you become a rugby agent? I set up a sports management agency with Liam Brady in 1990. We had the same view of how footballers should be represented. Liam had to step down after a year because he got the Celtic job.
Not long after rugby turned pro, I was approached by Jim Glennon and he introduced me to Ronan O’Gara, Shane Horgan and Denis Hickie. It was more to diversify and be involved in rugby at the start. I had the distinct pleasure of representing Hickie and Horgan throughout their careers and would regard them as good friends. Gordon D’Arcy joined a few months later. I think the next guy was Jamie so it was a big gap. Recently, we’ve been more active in the market.
Should there be regulation? You should have a licensing system so the agent has credibility. I’m licensed with Fifa. I can’t go in to negotiate a deal with, say, Aston Villa without that licence.
The Dad: David Kearney snr
Notable clients: Rob and Dave Kearney
How did you become a rugby agent? Robert originally started out with John Baker. John’s a good character. One day Robert asked if I would be interested in taking it on. It is a buying and selling job, that’s all.
My background is in farming and the trust is already built in. I don’t think anybody could go into it cold. There are nuances to the IRFU that you need to be aware of. You have to do your homework.
Should there be regulation? There should be. I went up to one of the Irupa meetings and there was a decent crowd in the room. I wondered how all these guys are going to make a living from this.
The ex-player: Niall Woods (Navy Blue)
Notable clients: Tomás O’Leary and Isa Nacewa (commercial only)
How did you become a rugby agent? I was chief executive of Irupa. I believed there was a gap in the market for someone to do it a bit differently. Having good contacts around the world, especially in the UK and France, was key for me starting it up.
Also, I would have seen and heard numerous complaints from the players about agents.
Should there be regulation? I tried to do it for years when Irupa chief executive but there were several problems.