Irish provinces out of place in rugby’s rich man’s world

Wasps’ brilliant back three highlights new money available to English Premiership clubs

Leinster’s Isa Nacewa and head coach Leo Cullen know the Irish provinces cannot compete financially with English and French clubs. Photograph: Dan Sheridan

Leinster’s Isa Nacewa and head coach Leo Cullen know the Irish provinces cannot compete financially with English and French clubs. Photograph: Dan Sheridan

 

Isa Nacewa is perhaps the perfect pair of eyes to see how the global game is becoming dollar-shaped. The relevance of rugby’s financial evolution is that new rules in the English Premiership are anticipated to make life harder in Ireland, much harder than in previous years.

One of dozens of Southern Hemisphere players to have flown north, the Leinster captain this weekend faces a player he once coached in Charles Piutau.

Wasps now have two All Blacks in their backline, Piutau and Frank Halai and along with Christian Wade could lay reasonable claims to having the best attacking three in club rugby.

This year the Premiership clubs had their salary cap loosened in order to drive the next phase of growth in English club and, they hope, international rugby.

Club limits on wage spending will be lifted by €1.42 million to €9.22 million next season and to €9.93 million in the 2017-18 season, bringing the Premiership closer to the spending power enjoyed by French clubs, which are currently capped at €12.2 million.

Far from shying away from paying bigger bills, most of the clubs are enthusiastically spending the money, with Bath recently having to deny that it breached limits last season.

Three more clubs then went public to explain they were not investigated for potential breaches of the cap. Exeter, London Irish and Northampton clarified their positions and brought to eight the number of clubs insisting they were not subject to scrutiny over possible infringements last season.

Wasps, Sale, Worcester, Harlequins and Gloucester had already denied any involvement in Premiership Rugby’s investigations.

It is now clear that England will soon join France as the destination of choice for marquee players. As well as those two All Blacks, Wasps also have the 111-capped former Wallaby, George Smith in their backrow.

“Look at the pure economics if it,” says Leinster coach Leo Cullen. “The English rugby authorities wanted the game to be on very solid financial footing and I think they probably achieved their goal.

“There definitely are more resources in the game particularly with some of the TV deals. They have broken out of the tight restrictions that they had.

“What’s does that mean? It means more top players are going to be attracted to play in England now. The fact even of pure economics . . . sterling is stronger. It’s [worth] 25 per cent more than three years ago.”

Disadvantaged

The salary cap in the Premiership for the 2014-15 season was €6.75 million. Bath, who Leinster will play next weekend at The Recreation Ground, argued they were disadvantaged playing against French clubs that had a spend of up to 100 per cent more on their squads.

The 23-year-old utility back Piutau will join Ulster next July. He joined Wasps on a one-season deal after being omitted from New Zealand’s World Cup squad.

Ulster were not in a position to include him on their roster for this season as their foreign allocation was full. Piutau played for Auckland Blues and has been capped 17 times for New Zealand. With even more money available next year, Wasps can afford to replace him with a more expensive player.

“Charles Piutau was just absolute world class. Very humble. Very hard-working and reads game really well,” says Nacewa, who worked with him at the Blues as a mental skills coach. “He’d do a lot of work in analysis and in front of the computer too.

“And he proved himself at All Black level before the World Cup squad got cut. He’s been part of that All Black environment too. He has a level of excellence that he holds himself. So he’s absolutely World Class.

“And then, look, Frank [Halai] has been capped by the All Blacks and was a standout Sevens players with Gordon Tietjens for a good few years.

“So adding that to Christian Wade, you’ve got one of the best attacks in world rugby at the moment. Frank has had a sort of disrupted super rugby campaign and has had a couple of good 80 minutes in a row with Wasps, so he’s probably relishing the challenge of being part of a new club too.”

The Irish provinces are beholden to the IRFU, who keep control of the purse strings and they know they cannot compete financially with France and now England. The increased English money is also expected to further alter the dynamic of where players, including those in Ireland, will play their rugby.

With Johnny Sexton’s one-year stint in Paris and Paul O’Connell now with Toulon, not only will coaches like Cullen have to compete against better equipped English sides but also work harder to prevent Irish players from making a move to the UK as he, Shane Jennings and Geordan Murphy did to Leicester early in their playing careers.

“Players will gravitate towards the best offers,” says Cullen. “That’s the reality of some of these decisions. The players are coming from the Southern Hemisphere in particular. I think the Premiership clubs are going to get stronger and stronger.”

Nacewa, who returned to Leinster after two years in New Zealand, sees Japan as the country many of the Kiwi players look at before England.

Big topic

“Japan is right up there for players Down Under,” he says. “Easier flight. Not too far from home. Look, players go wherever they feel comfortable. France is always a big topic of conversation down there. I don’t think there has been a huge amount of talk about the Premiership.”

In a television deal with BT, the Premiership netted €215 million over four years from 2012. In March of this year they signed a new deal with BT, which will take them to 2021 and offers a significant increase on the original terms.

Maybe the talk in Auckland now is of Japan. Just give it a year or two.

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