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.”