25 September 2013

There will be more Wild Geese

From our history lessons in school we remember the departure of the “Wild Geese” as soldiers of fortune who left Ireland to fight European wars in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It is very likely we will witness the rugby equivalent of Wild Geese over the next few years.

No sooner had Jonathan Sexton departed to France and the spectre of more players leaving at the end of the season began to loom large. The latest players reported to be in the crosshairs of the Top 14 recruitment machine are Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

The notion that the IRFU should contract them as soon as possible seems on the face of it a sensible recommendation. I have no doubt, were it that simple, their contracts with the IRFU would have a bow tied on them already. But it is not that simple.

You can be sure the French teams circling both players are already well aware they are “free agents”, as they would be described in the NFL. You can also be sure their agent has made the French clubs aware they are in the market. It’s what agents are supposed to do.

Over the past twelve years or so the IRFU have moved heaven and earth to keep Irish players at home. It is a very smart business decision and without doubt, the best policy for Irish Rugby. I, more than most, can attest to the value of keeping that policy in place at every possible opportunity.

Centrally contracting the players at home allows the IRFU to manage their careers with a view to keeping them as healthy as possible for as long as possible. Players playing no more than twenty-five to thirty games each season, four weeks holiday at the end of the season and eight weeks pre-season, were the axioms that guided the Player Management Programme instituted over ten years ago. These are working conditions that players in the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 can only dream about.

It is a policy that has been proven to work and is the envy of most other rugby unions in Europe, particularly England and France, where it is evident the clubs control the players. As Brian O’Driscoll enters his 15th season, it is hard to believe that he would still be playing test rugby, had it not been for the Player Management Programme.

The other incentive that has kept Irish players at home has been, as it is referred to in the business, the “Charlie McCreevy Tax Break”. This was introduced back in 2002 by the then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevey. It allows a player, who finishes his playing career in Ireland, to claim back 40% of the tax he has paid from the best ten years of his earning.

There have been a lot of Irish players over the years that have been offered opportunities to play overseas. But they have crunched the numbers, combined that with the advantages of the Player Management Programme and decided it was better for them to stay at home.

But the market has changed and so has the IRFU’s financial position. In fact up to a few years ago the IRFU were in front of the market and players were negotiating salaries with the IRFU that were better than offers they were receiving from overseas.

The big change has come in the Top 14 where club budgets are the biggest in world rugby. With some of the top clubs in France operating on budgets closing in on €30m, the salaries they can put on the table are driving the market substantially upward.

Ireland is not the only country under pressure. Top players are leaving Wales, England, Scotland, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and other countries to ply their trade in France. Ireland’s previous advantage in the European rugby market, brought about by player management, has been eroded. Players will move to where they are getting the best deal for their services. It’s called the “Free Market Economy”.

The IRFU’s position has been further compromised by the economic downturn. This has manifest itself in the starkest way possible, with the Union struggling to sell their ten-year tickets, which came in way below budget. That has changed the whole financial calculus of the IRFU going forward over the next few years.

Jonathan Sexton’s high profile departure to Racing Metro has just highlighted the challenges facing the IRFU to retain the services of the top Irish players.

There is no doubt that Jonathan Sextons’s departure was an emotive and even divisive issue among Irish rugby supporters. The fact that it was protracted, quite public and in the end Jonathan Sexton left for Racing Metro, didn’t help public perceptions on the matter.

It is easy to pound the IRFU over not keeping Sexton on deck. When you consider he is the first major name overboard in the last ten years, they have done a pretty decent job of keeping Irish players in Ireland.

The problem for the IRFU is they have to employ a form of “benchmarking” in relation to what they can afford to pay top players. In other words whatever they offer Jonathan Sexton they have to be in a position to offer a similar package to the next high profile player who negotiates a contract with them. Given the calibre of player Ireland has produced over the past ten years there are a lot of players who fall into that category.

Bottom line is, the IRFU could not compete with Racing Metro for Jonathan Sexton’s services. The notion being propagated in certain quarters of a personal battle between Jonathan Sexton, his agent and the IRFU doesn’t stack up.

It was in the IRFU’s interest to keep Jonathan Sexton playing in Ireland. Losing control of the welfare of one of their most important assets is not a good business outcome for the Union. In my experience they have always pushed the boat out as far as possible to keep Irish players at home and up until now have pretty much managed to pull it off.

At the end of the day contract negotiations are just business operations. But when the subject of the operation is a person, then ultimately emotion will play a part and often too big a part. In negotiations emotions tend to just muddy the waters, so the less emotion involved the easier it is to find a meeting of minds.

I have always adhered to the adage – “You never get what you deserve you only get what you negotiate”.

When negotiations are over if you are happy with what you have negotiated then take the deal. If not and you have another offer you are happier with then take that and move on. It’s called doing business. You have to respect the fact that the person on the other side of the table is also negotiating the deal they believe they will be able to live with.

It is evident that Jonathan Sexton was unhappy with the modus operandi of his negotiations with the IRFU. It’s possible his passion for Leinster and Irish Rugby meant he brought too much emotion to the table.

Whatever his reasons, everybody respects his decision to move to Racing Metro. He is a huge loss to Leinster and hopefully his move won’t effect his contributions in an Irish shirt. In the same way everybody also has to respect the IRFU’s decision to not meet his contractual demands, whatever their reasons.

Last year the New England Patriots player, Wes Welker, was right on top of his game and had set five reception records for the franchise. After five years with The Patriots he had become one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. In 2013 he became a free agent and attempted to negotiate a bigger contract. He now plays with the Denver Broncos. His demands didn’t fit in with the New England Patriots budget. It was just business and without emotion everybody immediately moved on.

There are more difficult negotiations coming down the track for the IRFU and top quality Irish players will be targeted by clubs overseas, especially in France. Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip are probably at the top of a hit list of Irish internationals.

As always, economics and not emotion will determine the outcomes of future negotiations. The current economic climate would suggest the deck is stacked against the IRFU.

On that basis we should prepare ourselves for more Wild Geese.