Gerry Thornley: How the Irish provinces have hit a brick wall

Niall Woods says financial might of Anglo-French clubs poses huge challenge for IRFU

 

Today’s European Champions Cup final in Lyon is the near inevitable consequence of the Anglo-French carve-up of the quarter-finals. This, in turn, was perhaps the likely consequence of their clubs carving up the new umbrella organisation which replaced the outgoing one that had run European rugby’s flagship competition for its first 19 years.

The trickle of Irish players going abroad hasn’t become a flood yet but the warning shots are there. After the loss of JJ Hanrahan from Munster to Northampton a year ago, Marty Moore is bound for Wasps and Ian Madigan for Bordeaux Begles (more of a one-off case), and the leading English clubs are pursuing Irish players in a manner not witnessed since the flight of wild geese-like proportions to London Irish and elsewhere with the advent of professionalism in the mid-90s.

Former Ireland winger Niall Woods was part of that player drain when joining London Irish in 1996. He was forced to retire in 2001 at the age of 30 after suffering a severe cruciate ligament injury two years previously, and his limp after a recent operation is an enduring legacy from those days.

He started up the Irish Rugby Union Players Association in January 2003.

After eight years overseeing the huge growth of IRUPA, initially encountering opposition from the IRFU and reluctance from many players, he needed a change. In January 2011, he moved on to become a player agent, and with 35 players on his books (including Moore), is now at the coalface of player contract negotiations and transfers. He does not see Anglo-Irish supremacy as a blip.

“This has probably been coming for the last couple of years – once they changed the salary cap in England. Certainly in the last 18 months the English clubs have come into the marketplace for Irish guys. Previously, you’d try to get a French club interested and now it’s more the English clubs.

Similarity

Woods accepts that this is a relatively arbitrary figure, which is also somewhat loosely applied – certainly by comparison to Ireland. “They do manage their players – probably not as good as here – but they’re not as far off as they used to be.”

In any event, English clubs are now also becoming a more attractive proposition. “In France you don’t know what you’re going to get. You can sign for a club in France and the coach can change even before you get there, or he can be fired in your first year. It’s just a more volatile market. Yes, you can get lucky and get a huge offer, but a player can be swayed by whether he wants to play for Ireland or not.

“If they want to play for Ireland they are more likely to go to England, if they’re going to move. Players are evolving. It’s not just about themselves any more. Better coaching structures is becoming a bigger factor.

“Yes, money is a big factor. It always has been and always will be. In the recent July 2016 contract cycle, I had an offer from a UK club for a player here which was more than double what he was being offered here. So that’s very hard for a player to turn down. It’s a short career. It’s a risky career. So you have to be very strong-willed to turn that sort of money down. You could be turning down €100,000 to €150,000 by not taking the offer.

Second Captains

“So that’s where it’s changing. Where probably in the past there might have been one French club willing to pay outrageous money, now you could have one French club and maybe two UK clubs willing to pay over the odds.”

Last season the salary cap in England increased from £4 million (€5.08 million) to £4.5 million (€5.72 million), and this season, it was increased by another half a million sterling to €6.35m, with further increases to £5.5 million (almost €7 million) for next season and £5.75 million (€7.3 million) in the 2017-18 season. Furthermore, the scope to sign one ‘marquee player’ outside the cap is being increased to two such players per club next season.

Of course the recent ‘investigation’ by Premiership Rugby (PRL) into breaches of the salary cap – which concluded with undisclosed settlements – highlighted how some were more willing to obey the salary cap than others. But their financial muscle is growing and, as Woods says, “there are always going to be clubs who have benefactors who have more money or are willing to invest more money”.

Then there’s the increased television monies accruing for the Premiership since BT Sport entered the market as a rival to Sky Sports. Premiership Rugby sold the broadcasting rights to BT for four season from 2013-14 to 2016-17 for £152 million (€1.93 million), or £38million (€48.26m) per year.

This deal, controversially, included rights to English games in the then Heineken Cup, which went some way to forcing through the structural changes the English and French clubs demanded, and led to them increasing their take from the overall pot from around 25 per cent to 33 per cent at the expense of the Celtic and Italian unions. PRL have since agreed a new four-year contract extension for undisclosed but “substantially more” revenue up until the 2020-21 season.

Eye-watering

This is a hike from €71 million for the current five-year deal, which expires in 2019, to an estimated €97million per season. To put these deals in perspective, the broadcast rights for the Pro12 are an estimated €14 million per year.

Furthermore, with more private benefactors coming into the English game, à la France, some clubs are expanding individually in their own right.

Wasps, by dint of their move to Coventry and their purchase of the Ricoh Arena under Irish insurance millionaire Derek Richardson, recently announced a 29 per cent increase in turnover to £21.4 million (€27.17 million). The strength of sterling against the euro adds to the financial attraction of English clubs – witness the loss of Ben Te’o, who has reputedly been signed by Worcester for £475,000 per year (a hike from around €250-300,000 to €600,000).

The stakes from an Irish perspective are even higher for home-grown stars. “That’s where the IRFU have to decide who they really want here and who they don’t,” says Woods. “They really wanted [Johnny] Sexton here so they paid a lot of money to get him back, and they wanted Seán O’Brien here so they paid him a lot of money.”

Some positions are, inevitably, more important than others. “That’s when they [the IRFU/provinces] have to decide do they want to keep the best scrummaging tighthead in the country or not,” says Woods, citing the example, clearly, of Moore. “That was their decision. They re-signed a 36-year-old,” he adds, in reference to Mike Ross. “That’s my opinion, that he [Moore] is the best scrummaging tighthead. People may say I’m biased.”

That said, Woods admits that younger players nowadays are “way better than we were in terms of their attitude to money. It’s all they know. Some are driven by money more than others, but most of them know that in the first couple of years the contract is going to be around 40 or 50k. Sometimes it’s more, but generally that’s all they’re going to earn. They deal with the fact that they’re playing with someone who’s on €700,000. They just get on with it, and they’re unbelievably efficient.”

The pull of home

In this regard, the English clubs have also invested heavily in their coaching tickets and facilities, and this is likely to become even more pronounced. “Yes, because the money is not going to stop, not for the foreseeable future. Players’ salaries in every sport only go in one direction. It’s just a question of how quickly it goes up.”

Good for agents, and players? “Technically it is, from a revenue point of view. But in rugby especially there’s more to be taken into consideration than just pure money. Whether it will end up like soccer in 20 years time and players will just go where the money is remains to be seen, but at the moment players consider a lot of other things, such as coaching, facilities and playing for their country.

“It doesn’t matter where you play your club football in soccer, you can still play for your country. They’re two big factors, particularly for Irish players if they’re in the frame of the top 30 to 40 players. They know that if they go away that’s going to be harder.”

Even so, Woods believes “it’s hard to see how they [the provinces] are going to compete in Europe”, not least as he envisages more Irish players leaving.

So, how can they compete?

“You’d have to say private investment is the only way they’re going to be able to. Leinster have started it, to a certain degree, with the likes of Jamie, Seánie and Johnny and, in effect, extra sponsorship, or else the union loosen their control like the New Zealand union did, and permit part ownership, and give 20 per cent of a franchise to a private investor. I can’t see the IRFU handing over any level of control, but that’s the risk if you want to compete. It may get to the stage in four or five years where they might not have an option.”

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