Heineken Cup doubts as big a factor as money in Irish players going to France
‘If I was 28 and there was a prospect of no European rugby, I’d be off like a shot’
Johnny Sexton’s move to Racing Metro was a ’no-brainer’ for Alan Quinlan: “I know if I was 27 or 28 and there was interest coming from France where the money is going to be good, then I’d have to seriously think about it”. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
In all the talk about the future of the Heineken Cup, you haven’t heard a whole lot from the players. Don’t take that to mean everybody will just be getting their head down and not paying the situation any attention. You can be guaranteed it’s a big topic of conversation and that players will be looking around them to see what’s what at all times.
Whatever way it all turns out, the public will hope to still have a European rugby tournament of some kind to watch. So while the man in the street will have his opinion one way or the other on what should happen, the reality is it won’t really affect him all that much. Players can’t afford to look at it that way.
This is your livelihood, plain and simple. So far in the professional era, the Heineken Cup has been the competition that has driven careers – especially for Irish players. On top of the enjoyment and fulfilment that comes with doing well in a world-class competition, it has provided the exposure and profile that has helped them improve their financial situation.
Do well in the Heineken Cup and you’re on the TV, you’re drawing envious looks from clubs all over the continent. It enhances your profile and puts you out there as a player.
It still comes down to you to perform, to be the best you can be. But when you’re on the biggest stage, your earning ability increases. Simple as that.
If you do well against the best teams, people notice. It shows up in win bonuses, it shows up in endorsements, it shows up in expressions of interest from outside clubs.
The Heineken Cup has been that platform all the way through. Now that it’s in danger, there’s uncertainty. Players will automatically re-evaluate where they are and where they’re going.
Money is not the main driver of a player’s career but we can’t pretend it’s irrelevant either. You want to win trophies, you want to be in a strong team that is going to compete, you want to make it to the highest level, you want to play for your country. None of that will ever change, regardless of what’s on offer or where the best contracts are.
But the cold reality is you owe it to yourself as a player to do the best thing for your career. If you’re lucky, you have around a decade to make it count. Plenty of fellas end up with less. The more you watch guys having to retire through injury, the more selfish you have to become. Every player is one bad knock away from having to find a new career.
This is why I would never for a single second hold it against any player if he left Ireland to play in France for better money.
It’s nothing to do with loyalty or anything like that. Rugby is a business at every level from the IRB down and it’s a business built on the back of players. Every last one of them owes it to himself to do as well out of it as he can.
In the past, players have said the right thing and done the right thing to make other people happy. It’s always been taboo to talk about money or to be seen to be someone who was agitating for a better deal or better endorsements. But we have to get past this idea that a player leaving for a better contract is in some way letting down the fans or the club or the media. That sort of thinking is just so far from reality.
Improve their working situation
Reality says that anyone in any walk of life that can improve their working situation will do just that. Reality also says that if a 26-year-old accountant or plumber or barman or whatever tries to get a pay rise and is told he’ll have to wait a year, he might be happy enough to because he knows he has 30 years of earning ahead of him. A 26-year-old rugby player can be confident of 10 more, at the very outside.
It’s different with top-level soccer. Because they’re all earning millions already, I can totally see how some fans would boo a player who goes to another club for an extra few grand a week.
By their mid-20s, these guys have already earned more money than they will ever spend, whereas even the top earners in rugby will still need to work after their career is over.
Getting paid to play rugby is living the dream, especially at the start. When you’re young and you’re playing well and people are making a fuss over you, you never give a moment’s thought to the future. But when you get to your mid-20s, you’ll probably be in a relationship, you might be starting to think about a family and all that. You get to a point where it’s not just you you’re responsible for.
And you very quickly realise loyalty has a sell-by date. It doesn’t matter how much you love your club or how much they love you, they will only keep you around for as long as you’re of some use to them.
That is how it should be – come in, do your work, get well paid for it. And when you can’t do it to the same standard anymore, we’ll pay someone else to do it.
All players know that reality. The flip-side of it is if someone in another club thinks you should be getting paid significantly more, then you’re crazy if you don’t consider either because you want to be loyal or you’re afraid people might think you chased the money.
Very good conditions
There’s no doubt the IRFU have provided very good conditions for players here down the years. Nobody expects the salaries to be on the same level as the French clubs but they’ve done their best and have provided a really good environment to work in. The player welfare programme has been excellent and they’ve taken care of injured players as well, sometimes offering contracts they wouldn’t get elsewhere.
Up to now, there has really never been a need to move. Plenty of top level players got offered way better money down the years to move but it never suited for a lot of reasons.
None of the Munster lads were ever going to leave while we were competing seriously in the Heineken Cup and I’d say the same went at Leinster. When you had a core group of players all aiming for the same goal, it was going to take something pretty outlandish to move them.
But I just get the sense the time has come where players are becoming more open about the possibilities for moving away. The goalposts have moved. You can’t be involved in rugby now without getting that business feel that surrounds it.
Partly it’s the effect of Johnny Sexton being the first one to jump. There was a some controversy around it but to me, it was a no-brainer. Given the difference between the money he was being offered by the union and by Racing Metro, he would have been stupid not to go.
But beyond Johnny’s situation, the doubts around the future of the Heineken Cup has to be giving players a reason to think long and hard. Now, for all anyone knows, they might have nothing to worry about. We don’t know where it’s all going to end up. If the English and French clubs get their way and they go ahead and set up their breakaway competition, there’s no guarantee of immediate success.
I mean, who genuinely believes you can do away with one of the great competitions of world sport and just simply turn around and set up a new one in its place without any hitches? All new ventures take time to iron out the initial glitches and every tournament or entity takes time to build up an audience. This could take years to become viable, competitive and as attractive to fans as the Heineken Cup already is.
Period of confusion
The point is, when everything is so up in the air you don’t have time as a player to wait around for it all to be sorted out. We could be looking at a two- or three-year period of confusion here. So if you’re a player and there’s interest in you that will potentially improve your earning power, now’s the time to nail down the next few years of your career.
I know if I was 27 or 28 and there was interest coming from France where the money is going to be good, then I’d have to seriously think about it.
And if on top of that there was going to be no European competition, well I’d be off like a shot. I’d be thinking, ‘Right, nobody can tell me for sure where all of this is going. My best option here is to go to France for a few years. I can always come back and finish off my career in Ireland when everything has settled down’.
It all comes down to one thing – security. You have to look after number one. Loyalty goes out the window. When you finish playing, you’re on your own. And although you’re part of a group during your playing days, the reality is when it comes to this side of things, you’re on your own as well. You owe it to your future to take care of yourself now.
From an outsider’s point of view, we all want to see the best players stay in Ireland and thankfully, up to now, it has never been a real problem. But a player can’t be too bothered with what outsiders think.
And as long as there’s a doubt around the Heineken Cup, their motivation to stay in Ireland must be up for grabs.