Amidst the media furore, recriminations, denials, Twitter shit-slinging and overuse of the word ‘floodgates’ that surrounded Johnny Sexton’s move to Racing Metro, another ground-breaking move has gone largely under the radar.
On the 30 April 2012, Leinster announced a tranche of contract extensions and a couple of new signings. In all, twenty contracts were announced, amongst them a two year deal for then 20-year old winger/fullback, Andrew Conway.
However, on 25 January 2013, Gerry Thornley broke the news that Conway was headed to Munster, and later in the day Munster would go on to confirm that the move was a done deal.
You’re Already In A Band, Or Didn’t You Fuckin’ Notice?
As far as The Mole is aware, Conway leaving Leinster to go to Munster mid-contract is the first in-contract ‘transfer deal’ between two Irish provinces. I haven’t heard of any Leinster two-year deal that has a break clause after one year: that’s not to say that they don’t exist, but I don’t see any reason why Leinster would label a one-year deal with the option of a second year as a two year contract.
So, if there’s no break clause, The Mole’s understanding of the situation would suggest that it means that the contract offer was not between Munster Rugby and Andrew Conway/his representative, but between Munster Rugby and Leinster Rugby. That’s an interesting scenario. Which came first? Munster’s offer or Conway’s dissatisfaction with his recently penned deal? What has changed to make Conway break a contract that he only recently signed? What do Leinster get in compensation, if anything? So many questions.
Ou Est Le Boeuf/Le Cheval?
Taking the new year as a simple halfway point in the season, at the time of the announcement Conway had played just over a quarter of his current two-year contract. He had played in 11 of Leinster’s 19 competitive matches to that date [10 starts, including his first HEC start, against Exeter at home]; he was also an unused substitute in the matchday 23 in a number of tight games from late October to mid-December, all of them decided by seven points or less:
- @ Scarlets [HEC | 20/10/12 | 13-20 win]
- @ Glasgow [Pro12 | 23/11/12 | 0-6 win]
- @ Clermont Auvergne [HEC | 9/12/12 | 15-12 loss]
- vs Clermont Auvergne [HEC | 15/12/12 | 21-28 loss]
In total, he was selected for 15 of a possible 19 matchday squads, missing out on the following games:
- @ Connacht [Pro12 | 28/9/12 | 6-34 loss]
- vs Cardiff [Pro12 | 27/10/12 | 59-22 win]
- vs Scarlets [HEC | 12/01/13 | 34-15 win]
- @ Exeter [HEC | 19/01/13 | 29-20 win]
With 10 starts in the first half of this season, he had already equalled the total number of starts in his last two seasons [6+4 in 2011-12, 4+3 in 2010-11]. In terms of where he stood in gametime racked up at Leinster, at the time of the announcement he was just outside the top 10 for starts in the 2012-13 season:
-  Ian Madigan – 14 starts
-  Leo Cullen – 13 starts
- [3-8] Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings, Kev McLaughlin, Fergus McFadden, Jonny Sexton, Isa Nacewa – 12 starts
- [9-10] Gordon D’Arcy, Mike Ross – 11 starts
- [11-12] Devin Toner, Andrew Conway – 10 starts
Leinster experienced significant injury problems in the first half of the season, which meant that a number of players [for example, Luke Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney, back three players who would have been direct rivals for gametime] were unavailable for selection for long periods. Furthermore, about half of those players of the twelve listed above would have played more games were it not for international player management protocol. Still, 10 starts in half a season is pretty good going for a 21 year old*.
* He has also started three games in the B&I Cup.
Additionally, Fionn Carr was confirmed as returning to Connacht next season four days before Conway’s transfer was announced out of the blue. Carr has been another direct competitor for gametime, and it was rumoured for a number of months that he would be on the move and dropping out of the running at Leinster. While contract negotiations are typically private business, it seems unlikely that word doesn’t get around inside the camp if somebody is on the way out.
You’re Living In The Past Marge. Quit Living In The Past.
The key to Conway’s dissatisfaction seems to The Mole to lie in the quite spectacular success that both Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy have enjoyed at their respective provinces, success that has seen them catapulted to international recognition. Conway played alongside Zebo in the 2010 U20 Six Nations and Junior World Championship, and alongside Gilroy in the 2011 U20 Six Nations [in one game] and in the JWC of that year; contrary to what some may believe, all three never played together.
While Zebo and Gilroy shone at underage level, Conway was the brightest star, playing in four U20 tournaments over two seasons and scoring a whopping 14 tries in 16 appearances. However, both the Belfast boy and the Cork-Martinique lad have since left him in their slipstream, adapting quickly to the demands of senior rugby, staying fit and producing performances that have caught the eye and the imagination. I’m sure they’ve been brought through, put their hands up, fronted up and kicked on as well [to put it in the parlance of rugby scribblers nationwide]. In contrast, Conway hasn’t got it done yet at senior level.
Having debuted for Leinster as an 18 year old under Michael Cheika in the 2009-10 season, he had a fine JWC in June 2010, scoring five tries in five games, including a hat-trick against the Scots in Ireland’s last match of the tournament. He picked up that form when he returned to Leinster colours, scoring a try in his first game of the season against Edinburgh in the Pro12. He was even more effective in the British and Irish Cup, scoring six tries in four games for Leinster ‘A’, all of them in pairs.
However, an ankle injury sustained against Treviso in late February [when he would otherwise have been playing for the Irish U20s] ended his Leinster season with surgery, and having been rushed back for his second JWC in June 2011 – in which he again bagged a remarkable five tries – he came into the 2011-12 season short a pre-season.
He has been hampered by a range of injuries that have kept him off the pitch: ankle surgery, whiplash, stingers, concussion. Conway is a slight, lightweight player whose primary attribute is his out-and-out speed; in comparison to other small wingers like James Simpson-Daniel or Shane Williams, he hasn’t really mastered many ways to beat a man in a phone box, avoid the full force of big hits or finish tries in improbable circumstances.
Aside from injury issues [and more to the point], Conway’s form hasn’t demanded selection. For a player whose game is predicated on scoring tries – and in a position where finishing ability is a must – he’s hardly covered himself in glory, scoring just two five-pointers in his 20 appearances over the last one and a half seasons. Leinster have been a pretty free-scoring team over that period – they were the second highest try-scorers in the Pro12 last year [behind Ulster] and are currently heading the try-scoring charts this season – so blaming the style of play doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
But What About The Heineken Cup [Which Is Strangely Deemed A Pre-Requisite For International Selection While Also Being Written Off As Not Relevant To Test Rugby]?
Conway made his Heineken Cup debut in Leinster’s first game of the pool, an unconvincing 9-6 win over Exeter at the RDS. The following week, he found himself amongst four unused replacements [alongside Jamie Hagan, Jordi Murphy and Fionn Carr] in the tight 20-13 win over the Scarlets in Parc y Scarlets. He can hardly have any beef with missing out on selection, or not being called on from the bench in a close game: after all, in the first game of the Pro12 season in the same ground, the Scarlets wingers scored four tries in a 45-20 demolition of an understrength Leinster, with the unheralded Andy Fenby banging in two scores down Conway’s wing.
He was likewise bench-bound for the two games against Clermont Auvergne, for similar and obvious reasons: the Clermont wingers Napolioni Nalaga [191cm/6’3” and 105kg/16st7lbs] and Sitiveni Sivivatu [186cm/6’1” and 99kg/15st8lbs] are horrific physical match-ups for Conway, who goes about 180cm/5’11” and a very generous 91kg/14st4lbs [and it’s more likely that he’s still around the 178cm/5’10” and 88kg/13st12lbs that he was billed at previously].
With Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Brian O’Driscoll all returning from injury in the new year, Conway found himself squeezed out of the matchday squads for the two remaining Heineken Cup games, bonus points wins over the Scarlets [in the RDS] and Exeter Chiefs [in Sandy Park]. The three returning players scored four tries between them in two games – Kearney scored one in each – so it’s difficult to argue with that selection from any perspective. In short, The Mole feels that Conway hasn’t been hard done by in selection terms. He’s been given gametime, and he has been given chances. If he’s dissatisfied, he doesn’t really have any legitimate beef.
It’s All Happening Not Soon Enough
The Leinster Schools Cup is a media-saturated event [for better or worse] and the best young players can attain a relatively high profile amongst keen rugby followers. The players take it seriously, and schools at the business end of things take it very seriously. Professionally-programmed strength and conditioning routines, nutrition plans, analysis and countless hours of training are all par for the course, and between the schools themselves and the Leinster Talent Identification Program [TIP], the best players are well-trained, physically prepared and über-confident.
Leinster are typically well-represented on underage teams; the players are ahead of the curve preparation-wise, if not necessarily on pure talent. Recognition is a real confidence booster to already confident young players, and The Mole believes that there are a lot more players who genuinely believe that they’ll succeed if given the chance than those who believe they’re lucky to have got the nod – that’s not a bad thing at all. They carry that confidence forward to U20s level which, whilst a very valuable step along the path, can also be something of a false arrival point; after all, as we’ve said many times before, the U20s have to pick a new team every year.
Nevertheless, some players progress smoothly and quickly into senior rugby; others who are maybe as talented don’t manage that progression quite as quickly for any number of reasons, and it can be the first real blow to their confidence. Youngsters who have been lionised as they rose through the grades hit the first stumbling block, and they’ve no idea how to deal with it. One thing’s for sure in their minds though – it ain’t me, it’s you. Who’s going to tell them otherwise?
Niall Woods – Bill Of Goods
Conway is represented by former IRUPA head Niall Woods of Navy Blue Consulting – like his protege, an alumnus of Blackrock College – who turned out for Leinster, London Irish and Harlequins during playing days that saw him win eight international caps on the wing. While the circumstances surrounding professional rugby have changed a great deal between Woods’ playing career and that of Conway, they share a similar profile – both pacy, lightweight wingers who learned their rugby at Blackrock and Leinster. It doesn’t seem improbable that there’s a particularly close working relationship between agent and client; after all, Woods can’t really give Marty Moore [another of his clients] any pointers on scrummaging, but he sure knows a thing or two about playing on the wing, and he also knows a thing or two about the workings of the professional game.
I’m sure every sports agent likes to portray himself as a Jerry Maguire type of figure [and some may even look in their hotel mirrors and see themselves as just that], but in reality, there are just as many of the Bob Sugar types out there too. Anyhow, they’re not so dissimilar:
You’d have to be a bit of a misanthrope to believe that those parents acting as their son’s agent – Frank O’Driscoll [father of Brian] being the most well known, although there are others – have anything but the best interests of their progeny at heart, but not everybody’s father or parent has the professional background, or the time, or the inclination to take on this role in their son’s life.
A veil hangs over the motivation of every other agent. Their interest is inextricably linked with the commercial and financial success of their client – they’re on a percentage after all, not a fixed fee. For them, what’s best for the player can only be measured in euros, how much you can get out of the best deal. It’s certainly a powerful motivating factor for the agent to work the negotiating tables hard when it gets time to look at the next contract. Is the best decision necessarily the best deal though? What is a career – is it the money you made or the accomplishments you achieved?
Richie Gray is earning more money at Sale than he was at Glasgow – thus his agent is earning more money. If the definition of ‘good’ is more money, then Gray has made a good decision and his agent has done a good job. Neither is true. He made a sh*t decision and got bad advice.
Once you discard the idea that more money automatically equals better, then everything becomes a lot more complicated. Day-to-day enjoyment of training, team spirit, learning from good coaches, ease of communication with those around you [not necessarily just about language, but having shared experiences, similar outlooks and ambitions and the like], good relationships with management/owners, good injury management and player welfare, standard of facilities, on-pitch competitiveness, living standards, happiness of family/partners etc. – these are all aspects that come into play for the player, not necessarily the agent.
The Tooz On Football, Business And The American Dream
There’s a great quote in Bill Walsh’s book ‘Finding The Winning Edge’ from former LA Raiders defensive end John Matuszak [who was a pretty f*cked up character in the great Raiders teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s – and he played Sloth in The Goonies too!] about player contract negotiations in the NFL: “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business – and every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”
You can’t expect the player to go into negotiations with his Leaving Cert and the url of his YouTube highlight reel and expect to get a fair deal. The gentlemen on the other side of the table have a lot more experience of this thing, and it’s in their interests to keep the price down. You also don’t want your players worrying about a meeting they’re going to have on Monday morning about their future earning abilities when they’re lining up a kick on Saturday afternoon. Agents have a legitimate and important part to play. To quote Sonny Corleone: “I don’t want my brother coming out of that toilet with just his dick in his hands, alright?”
It also has to be pointed out that agents can and do often act in the players’ best interests by depersonalising an often emotional decision. It is unlikely that Johnny Sexton wanted to leave Leinster at the start of the season but when Racing Metro made him an offer he could not refuse he was willing to reconsider.
The overwhelming public reaction to Sexton’s move was “good on him, sad to see him go, it’s a lot of money and a short career”. Unlike Gray, Sexton already has three Heineken Cups to look back on when his career is done. How his move affects the rest of his career is something that remains to be seen. When you’ve won things, your perspective can change. Tom “Terrific” Brady recently chose to stay with the New England Patriots for less than his market worth, in large part to help the Patriots stay competitive for the next five seasons.
You Don’t Get Me I’m Part Of The Union
And what about those dastardly blazered types who sit tight-lipped and tight-walleted on the other side of the table? What was their role in the Conway ‘transfer’?
For the most part the Professional Contracts Review Group [PCRG] – made up of Martin O’Sullivan, Pa Whelan, Tom Grace, Eddie Wigglesworth and Philip Browne, the first three committee men [blazers], the latter two professionals [suits] – have laboured beneath the radar, only really breaking cover to announce the spectacularly ill-received protocol on non-Irish-qualified players in December 2011.
Their priority was re-establishing the primacy of the Irish team and getting the provinces to push in the same direction, and for good reason: the CEO’s report states [on page 13] that “81% of IRFU revenues are generated by the national team, which in turn subsidises the provincial professional teams to the extent of 40% of total IRFU expenditure”.
However, the document designed to address player shortage and succession issues in specific positions was unpopular, poorly thought-out, impractical, possibly illegal and badly timed – a complete clusterf*ck, basically. The timing of the release, coming as it did right in the heart of the provincial season, with very few rugby fans thinking much beyond their province’s next Heineken Cup match, was guaranteed to provoke a negative response from the public – a rookie error – but they were also setting up some hard and fast rules that were simply unnecessary, especially as they already had the power to veto any provincial deal with a non-Irish qualified player.
Despite that, once all the bluster and clunky prose was burned off, the PCRG’s goal was pretty legitimate:
“The aim would be to have at least two such eligible players [likely first choice selections in provincial squads] in each field position across Ulster, Munster and Leinster … the objective is to protect the National Team without undermining the performances of the provincial teams as we collectively believe successful provinces are an important ingredient to a successful National Team.”
The Mann Act – Transporting Minors Across State Lines
Alongside the central tenet of reducing provincial reliance on non-Irish-qualified players, a growing concern amongst the union is to mobilise young talent they see as jammed up in the provincial works.
This is all very noble and correct etc. … except that there remains the suspicion that the top echelons of Irish rugby are rife with internal fiefdoms and provincial loyalty, and when you hear the phrase ‘the best interests of Irish rugby’, you may as well substitute it with ‘the best interests of my province’.
Given their disastrous handling of the NIQ issue, it’s probably for the best that the PCRG haven’t gone public with any protocol about the in-contract targeting by provinces of other provinces’ academy or development players, but it’s an open secret that it happens. In any case, the key question is whether or not the PCRG tacitly condoned a young player breaking his contract – in altogether unexceptional circumstances – with one branch of the union in order to take up with another branch of the same union.
As reported by Peter O’Reilly, it looks like the IRFU are planning to go all professional before RWC15. Conway’s contract break seems to open up a can of worms that an incoming professional is unlikely to appreciate. Is the Conway move – and the heavily rumoured [but yet to be officially confirmed] Munster re-signing of South African tighthead BJ Botha, which flies altogether in the face of the December 2011 protocol – the last sting of the dying wasp that is the PCRG?
Would Conway have been able to walk out on Leinster to join Racing Metro mid-contract? If Conway didn’t walk out but was traded, how much did Leinster get for him? If he didn’t walk out but was released, why were Leinster prepared to let him go without receiving compensation? And what’s the difference, from Leinster’s point of view, between Racing Metro and Munster?