Rugby players want more influence in moulding future of game – union
Irupa believe that working with, not against, the IRFU is best way forward
Leinster’s Ian Madigan will be facing Toulon’s Mathieu Bastareaud more often next season when he joins Bordeaux-Bègles. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Irupa CEO Omar Hassanein with Leinster and Ireland’s Rob Kearney. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
In the face of the ever increasing financial muscle of the French and English clubs, these are challenging times for Irish rugby. But amid a wave of contract negotiations involving their members, the Irish Rugby Union Players Association see themselves as an ally to the IRFU in helping to keep Ireland’s best players at home, and claim to have successfully assisted over 50 players in contractual issues over the last year.
Irupa have helped put measures in place for the benefit of their members which, by extension, can assist these lofty ambitions, according to the association’s CEO Omar Hassanein. “We and the governing body have a couple of aligned interests. We all want success, we want to keep all our best players in the country and attract better foreign players.”
Sick pay rates
Hassanein says they are merely trying to emulate their “more active” fellow New Zealand and Australian players’ associations. To that end, he says they have helped to secure “the best sick pay rates in the northern hemisphere, and far more structured and consistent tournament and match fees. Players know what their pathways are, and there’s a better correlation between reward and success. Guys aren’t holding pads for nothing. We’re also working with the governing body so that more players are getting more game time.”
Indeed, when Hassanein met with the IRFU performance director David Nucifora and CEO Philip Browne for three hours on Wednesday morning, the primary topic was player movement between the provinces.
He admits Irupa are “working towards” achieving a basic wage, as exists in Australia, amid rumours of some players on development contracts worth a puny €15,000 per annum, having recently doubled basic academy contracts from a miserly €4,000.
According to Irish captain Rory Best, the players have become more self-aware in their collective outlook. “People used to turn up at the occasional Irupa meeting and it was all about ‘what can we get? Where do were get reduced green fees?’ Now people ask more informed questions. Players want to have more of a lead as to where Irish rugby is heading. We share in the good times and the bad times. The players and the IRFU are all in this together.”
Playing longevity in the Irish system emanates from better care in Best’s view.
Yet surely in some instances, such as the Bordeaux-bound Ian Madigan or Wasps-bound Marty Moore and others, players might be better served by a move abroad, be it for financial or rugby playing reasons.
“Make no doubt about it, our mandate is two-fold, to protect the player’s interest and to drive the best interests of the game,” says Hassanein. “Our primary purpose is always to make sure the player is in the best possible position for his career, and in the case of Mads and Marty they’ve made decisions which they feel are in their best interests.
“ So we are always supportive of those guys and will continue to represent them when they are abroad. But that doesn’t stop us in our mission to keep more guys here.” He cites the “good outcomes” regarding Keith Earls and Simon Zebo.
“The key,” according to Best, “is making sure that guys who are playing consistently for their province and their country want to stay. I think if you have a player who plays maybe 25 or 30 games for his province and then he moves on, then you’ve got to ask questions.”
He notes that Madigan and Moore are young enough to return to the Irish system.
While Irupa negotiates the standard player contract as part of the lengthy collective agreement, incorporating match fees and tournament fees, “the two things we don’t negotiate, which are in the hands of the agent, is the retainer fee and the duration of the contract.”
Other factors come into play, such as tax breaks and both business and education opportunities. “Interestingly, 87 per cent of our players have either got third-level education or are in the process of doing so. I believe that’s the highest world-wide.”
Be that as it may, in addition to more money, English clubs as well as French clubs are now offering more success than heretofore, judging by this season’s results, and more expensively assembled coaching tickets. And the competitiveness of the provinces has been a major factor in keeping players at home.
“Players are driven by success, and they want more than just success in the five matches of the Six Nations, ” admits Hassanein. “We can never under-estimate the impact of strong versus weak provincial performance on players’ decisions.”
Best nods in agreement and cites Irupa’s role in helping to attract high-quality overseas players. Interestingly, the Ulster and Irish captain adds: “If you look at the level of foreign players which the provinces have, compared to the so-called golden years, it’s probably not like for like. That for me is somewhere we can vastly improve. And it’s not just money. We need to put other carrots in place to get four world-class players. It not only makes the provinces stronger, but it brings players along who are playing beside these guys.”
Where before it was a two-strong operation run by Niall Woods and Sara Jane English, the Irupa now has a staff of 10, who oversee a membership numbering almost 300 including the women’s game and academies.
The nine-man IRFU National Professional Game Board now includes an Irupa representative in Eoin Reddan. Compared to “a backward attitude in saying administrators should be separate from players”, this “represents real strides,” according to Hassanein, who is almost five years into the job.
“But there are always instances when we should have potentially been given more input at a higher level of involvement. But give credit to the IRFU, it’s moving in the right direction. As a sport, we need to respect the players’ views and have them as integral to the shaping of the game.”