Gordon D’Arcy: Irish provincial system needs to find a new way of evolving
English and French clubs embracing their academies will change European landscape
Racing 92’s Donnacha Ryan catches the ball during the Top 14 match against Castres at the U Arena. Photograph: Lucas Barioulet/AFP via Getty Images
Early December tends to overlap two seminal moments in the career of a rugby player. The European campaign is on the line but so is your family’s financial security. The back-to-back Anglo-Irish matches this and next weekend are happening while several Ireland internationals are embroiled in contract negotiations with David Nucifora.
Well, it is Nucifora if you are progressing nicely towards, or retaining, a national contract. Otherwise, you take whatever slice of the provincial budgetary pie that is on offer.
What about the alternative route?
In the wake of Saracens salary cap scandal, English clubs have already begun to increase the focus on their academy systems. Northampton are a prime example. There will be less marquee signings like George North as the next wave of English players are given more opportunities.
Like, at Bristol Bears, where Callum Sheedy is already on Eddie Jones’s radar, having kept Ian Madigan out of the 10 jersey.
I will address the contrasting fates of Ian, Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan, since they moved abroad.
Interestingly, Northampton – where Leinster travel on Saturday – were asked to explain their recruitment strategy recently. If it was in a press conference, head coach Chris Boyd could have dodged the topic. But when the question came at a season-ticket holders event, he could not sugar coat or spin the people who keep the club afloat.
“It’s really interesting because we’ve now got our contracting spreadsheet out to about the 2025-26 season,” Boyd explained. “We’ve even got some young boys’ names in the academy for three or four years’ time so we’re trying to predict where the holes are going to be and where we need to fill them if people retire or move on.”
Leinster have been operating a similar recruitment drive as far back as my teenage years. I remember the summer camps.
The English clubs are catching up. It won’t be long before a few of them – with the right coaching and joined-up thinking – start to rely less on the millions of pounds shelled out for an All Black like Owen Franks (Northampton) or Fijian genius like Semi Radradra (Bristol).
“The Saints team of this season and next season won’t be vastly different,” said Boyd – the 61-year-old Kiwi who has the Saints playing brilliant possession rugby from the Wellington school of thought. “We will continue to stick to a policy of young and English, and you will see that we’ve avoided the temptation this year of chasing anyone with a big name, high profile and expensive ticket.
“Because what’s going to happen with all of these youngsters is that they’re going to come up. We’re getting reasonably good value out of them at the moment because they’re in their first contracts, but in four years’ time it’s going to be a big job to keep them all.
“We’re going to have to be really smart about how we keep those because I’m convinced that if we can keep the spine of this team together from young, English, local boys, that’s the best place we can come from.”
From an Irish perspective this is a worrying sign of the times. The secret is out.
Let’s see how much money is flooded into the professional game by CVC and other investors in the coming decade. It will always be tempting for a cash-rich club to copy the Toulon model but Racing 92 are attempting a more sustainable plan by bringing in someone like Ryan.
By that I mean more than just a mercenary.
Overall, a change in mindset is apparent.
What’s certain is the days of Tommy Bowe and Johnny Sexton commanding top-end salaries in France or the UK, yet still compiling international caps, is past.
Nucifora and Joe Schmidt refused to blink when Zebo followed Ryan to Paris, after Leinster barely missed a beat when Madigan joined Bordeaux.
The options are clear for players as December arrives and their IRFU contract remains unsigned. Some risky advice: you can do what I did in 2009 and use the Six Nations to increase your worth. After I played well and we won the Slam both parties came out of the trenches and we agreed a salary that the IRFU largely got back over the course of our next two contract negotiations. The alternative was to up sticks to France.
I stayed because I got paid close to what I felt I was worth. I was 29. Same age as Bundee Aki is now. The IRFU deals for 30-somethings are never going to be as sweet. From age 32 they play hardball unless you are a durable prop or outhalf. They know you are married and have young kids in school so they can be very confident you are not going anywhere. As harsh as this sounds it’s the reality of professional sport.
I accepted significant dips in salary for my last two contracts but the union did offer performance incentives. If your mid-30s body can handle as many games as your late 20s body than you will receive bonuses – for wins and performance – to bring you close to what you were earning in your prime.
Trust me it’s the best possible motivation to avoid injury.
Another reality, nowadays, is that a specialist player – be that lock, hooker, prop, outhalf or scrumhalf – can earn more money in five seasons on the continent than an entire career in Ireland.
But don’t be thinking family life in a city where you know nobody and don’t speak the language is anything but incredibly tough. Also, the foreign club won’t care about your body like Leinster or Munster do.
In fact, they won’t get to know your body’s particular needs. The remit will be thus: play well and play regularly or you will be shipped on without a moment’s hesitation.
There is very little gratitude shown. As Don Draper told Peggy Olsen in Madmen: “That’s what the money is for!”
Financial security tends to overpower a non guarantee of playing international rugby. I was an inside centre so the choice of vast riches on foreign fields, while offers did exist, was not as tempting.
Ian Madigan could be framed as a cautionary tale, considering he’s due to join a third club since leaving Leinster in 2016, but he has been very well compensated for missing out on all those Ireland caps in his prime years.
I’m not worried about Mads. After being unable to nail down the starting outhalf slots in Bordeaux and Bristol he may revert to a role that has equally suited him; the goal kicking fullback remains a valuable commodity. His skill set as a creator in that second line we are constantly seeing teams attack with, and those big cut out passes of his, should be made for the modern game. He just needs to choose the right club.
Donnacha Ryan appears to exist at the other end of the spectrum. In season three at Racing 92, and still only 35, Ryan can be seen as the one that got away. He’ll probably end up making a decent living as a coach in France – with all their tax benefits – whenever his body cries out for a rest.
Ryan slipped out of the succession planning in Ireland as Munster opted to invest in a bigger and 10 years younger lock named Jean Kleyn. That’s what appears to have happened. It might have been a logical business decision at the time but looking at Donnacha in Thomond Park last month the benefits Ireland would have gained from his wise old Tipperary head in Japan were obvious.
I think Nucifora and the IRFU missed a trick there. Ryan’s mid-30s body but mostly brain would have come in very handy.
Only the rarest breed gets to demand payment above the market rate.
Men like Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy do not grow on trees in Ireland. I hope Andrew Porter knows his true worth.
Zebo’s decision to leave at 28 years old is lumped somewhere in between the Madigan and Ryan situations. Racing pay significantly above the usual six figure wage doled out by other French and English clubs, never mind what the IRFU could muster.
Will Simon come back to Munster? Do they want or need him anymore?
Johann van Graan certainly won’t be operating on sentiment. The alternative is a trip through the ranks of the French club scene. If Zebo plays the way he did in Limerick recently then he still has plenty to offer Irish rugby, but that appears to be an exception to the norm.
Long road to New Zealand
A penny for Bundee Aki’s thoughts? I don’t think anyone could have blamed him for taking the long road back to New Zealand via a lucrative stint in Japan. At key moments Aki single-handedly drove Connacht to a Pro 12 title in 2016 and he was a mainstay in the Grand Slam midfield, only to suffer desperate luck at the World Cup when failing a HIA before being suspended for a marginally high tackle.
But Aki has decided to run out his prime years in Galway (did you see him piloting the maul over the try line last weekend? One in a thousand imported centres will bring that level of commitment). I’m sure his negotiation strategy was more than mere threat of leaving and coupled with his durability the IRFU decided to pay up.
As a result, others will lose out as the budget needs balancing. But the old argument resurfaces when watching how Saracens will flog their returning World Cup heroes from now until the summer.
We await their team selection but I’d expect the champions to view this weekend as an opportunity to remind the entire rugby world what they are all about. No better place to do this than under lights at Thomond Park.
But the game is changing. Bernard Laporte has forced the Top 14 clubs to play more French qualified players with Toulouse quickest to embrace a return to local talent. The rest are following.
Northampton have copped on. Saracens and Exeter are only going to improve their underage programmes while the old guard of Leicester, Bath and Gloucester should get there eventually.
It makes the latest rounds of ‘them against us’ fascinating to witness because if the English have already caught up – Harlequins beating Ulster and Gloucester getting the better of Connacht would provide proof – then the Irish provincial system is going to have to find a new way of evolving.
As ever, the French and English are coming for us. Nobody fears them but that doesn’t mean we need not be extra vigilant on and off the field.