Monday, 5 September 2016

Look Out Leinster... The Money Talks

May you live in interesting times..... 

Or so says a Chinese proverb - supposedly - which has long since been assumed into the English lexicon. It is a phrase that could be used to describe rugby in the Irish provinces at the moment and the potential player salary questions that could lead to some turbulent times ahead. As will the questioning of the long standing success of centrally contracted players by the Irish Rugby Football Union [IRFU] as the four-year gap until the next rugby world cup will expose some weaknesses at Leinster, Munster and Ulster. With Connacht inching closer to reaching the elite Champions Cup this season and complicating things. Having proved to be a calibre above their competition for a number season under coach Pat Lam. 

If Robbie Henshaw should make an Ian Madigan type move, then it will dent their armour a little for a period in the Galway Sportsgrounds.

For Madigan though the decision to move to Bordeaux Begles is one that reflects a clear thought process and one not weakened by any fear of not retaining a place on the Irish squad. Rather a conviction that he has done his country proud when asked, and indeed his province when needed, and received comparatively little recognition for it all. Indeed, being asked to front the Argentinian onslaught in Cardiff last October at very short notice when Johnny Sexton had been named in the starting line-up – when still slightly injured. With a number of seasons at Leinster being used as utility player and then facing being in the shadow of Sexton once again, a move was probably always on the cards. With Bristol testing the waters initially and then the French side securing his services in the end. 

The financial package making it all the more palatable as Madigan moves from six thousand a month a year ago to ten times that amount next year - with other perks thrown in.

In the final analysis it will be the money, or lack of it, that will curb Leinster’s enthusiasm and return them to tightrope they walked when holding onto Brian O’Driscoll as the IRFU were forced to break their salary benchmarks- to retain his services. Albeit the reality of a move abroad was less likely for record breaking Irish centre. Which was not the case for Sexton when Racing Metro came knocking. Or indeed for Paul O’Connell, who in his elder statesmen role can repeat what Bakkies Botha, Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell have all done with Toulon. A kind of pension planning it has to be said and a trend started by Jonny Wilkinson that allowed him extend his career in the warmer weather of southern France. Similarly, as O’Connell calls time on his international days the requirements for training camps in Carton House simply disappear. 

A balance that Sexton fought hard to maintain ahead of the rugby world cup during his Paris years. And did so at a cost to his body and soul as there was often too little proper rest between matches for club and country. But then again during the past four years’ Irish rugby was gearing up for the rugby world cup and the chance to improve on the disappointments in New Zealand four years previously. With coach Jose Schmidt set to benefit from those centrally agreed IRFU player contracts which at times left the province suffering at times during the Pro 12 with the absence of key players. 

However, the 2015 rugby world cup extolled much damage on a number of Irish players making them unavailable for their provinces. Names like Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Mike Ross, Sean O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Conor Murray, Richardt Strauss, Keith Earls, Chris Henry and Tommy Bowe – a point valiantly made by former Irish centre Gordon D’Arcy in his Irish Times column this week. With a number of key retirements over the years also debilitating both Munster and Leinster impacting perhaps the early departure of both in the Champions Cup. A factor that will undoubtedly will affect their seeding for next year’s tournament. As will the lack of pay out for reaching the latter stages affect their gross revenue number for the season.

The nitty-gritty will boil down to progressing the gifted young players from the academy – and offer them a chance pick up the slack in the Pro12 - whom many facing a season or two on old contracts. Which will be buttons compared to their regular first team colleagues. 

In the case of Leinster, where they have some potential stars coming up the ranks it will create fodder for hungry sports agents seeking to maximise their client’s potential. No doubt there is a vast difference between an Academy pay-packet and a basic of 6k a month on the first team. Albeit it pales into insignificance with those on €40-50 thousand a month in France. That Super 14 league where All Blacks out half Dan Carter is set to earn one million pounds sterling a year at Racing Metro. The Kiwi’s salary a full half a million euro better than the next best paid, Matt Giteau at Toulon or Leigh Halfpenny. But for rugby world cup winner Carter, the demands of the All Blacks now pass on to the next generation and so international duty is no longer an issue. 

As it will probably be for Gateau, who along with Drew Mitchell, were given special dispensation by the Australian Rugby Union to play for their country in the world cup after they rescinded the ruling that prohibited overseas based players being included in the Wallabies. A change that clearly paid dividends for Australia and rewarded the efforts of their coach Michael Cheika, who proved it a pointless rule given the nation reached the world cup final – and won the Rugby Championship. Even if it was implemented for all the right reasons initially. The likelihood that Madigan will get any special dispensation of a similar nature from the IRFU – albeit there is no written rule - seems unlikely. A factor that he would have taken into account in his decision making. 

As with England - where the skills and ability of Steffon Armitage - were deemed surplus to requirements despite his impressive performances for Toulon over recent years in the Heineken Cup. In the post tournament analysis Stuart Lancaster lost his job and could have done with Armitage as it might have allowed England progress further in their home rugby world cup. But rules are rules it seems.

More importantly, in soccer a player like Ian Madigan – arguably nurtured at school’s level by Blackrock College then developed at the Leinster Academy and further supported by the IRFU - will leave the Irish set up without any payback – anywhere to anyone. In the soccer world the talent is an asset and can only be transferred for agreed fees between clubs, as in any normal commercial transaction. With some added rules and clauses that can even permit the originating schoolboy retain an ongoing percentage of future transfer fees. 

So as professionalism penetrates rugby further over the coming years the clubs and Provinces will no doubt seek similar policies and regulations. Especially when the TV money, sponsorship reach their maximum and the need for money increases. After all, if an agent finds French clubs for a number of the younger Irish talent for example, the provinces could be decimated if the IRFU is unable match the big money offers as they arise. For Madigan it was a simple decision both on and off the field offering him some interesting times.

Look out Leinster.... money talks!


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