Where’ve All The Rude Boys Gone? Japan

Stephen Ferris

Stephen Ferris looks likely to accept a one year deal to play in Japan next season rather than accept an offer from the IRFU that is contingent on gametime. Having missed out on contention for a Lions tour this summer due to an injury plagued season, it’s not a bad idea to earn good money, play some lower intensity rugby and then come back for a season leading up to RWC15, at which stage he’ll just have turned 30 years old.

If Stephen Ferris makes the rumoured switch to the Top League, he won’t be the first Irish backrower to play in Japan’s top flight rugby competition.

Mark Egan, former Terenure College No8 and current Head of Development and Performance in the IRB spent four years in Japan playing for Kobe Steel in the mid 1990s, having captained Oxford University to success in the 1990 Varsity Match at Twickenham.

Egan’s tenure in Japan owed much to the influence of the remarkable Dr Sokichi Kametaka, then president of Kobe Steel, a passionate supporter of the game in Japan and a man with a deep and abiding connection to Oxford University rugby.

The comparison between Ferris and Egan is fascinating; in many ways, it shows just how much the game has changed socially and commercially in the last twenty-odd years.

Mark Egan taking ball on for Terenure against Eddie Halvey of Shannon in the AIL during 1997, after his return from Japan. Egan had been an Irish U25 representative at one time, and gave up his chance at a full cap to move to Japan and further his career. [Photo credit: James Meehan at INPHO]

Mark Egan taking ball on for Terenure against Eddie Halvey of Shannon in the AIL during 1997, after his return from Japan. Egan had been an Irish U25 representative at one time, and gave up his chance at a full cap to move to Japan and further his career. At the time of his move, rugby was an amateur game; when he returned to Ireland, the game had officially gone open, although the provincial set-ups as we now know them had not yet been established by the IRFU.  [Photo credit: James Meehan at INPHO]

These days, the Varsity Match is just a glorified sideshow with little meaning for rugby fans outside the dreaming spires, while for the best part of a century it was one of the highest profile games in the rugby calendar. Ferris’ proposed move has been characterised as a lucrative short-term money-spinner, a means of ekeing out the last yen of his pro career. In contrast, Egan’s was seen as the first step on the corporate ladder of a long career outside the game … a career of business administration in a blue-chip industry in perhaps the most vital economy in the world at the time.

Times have changed; professionalism has changed the game in many ways, not just with regards to players becoming bigger and stronger. However, some things in Japanese rugby haven’t changed too much. Franchises are still owned by corporations – Kobe Steel have become Kobelco Steelers – and gaijin still have an important part to play on the pitch.

The Japanese Top League

The Japanese Top League is composed of fourteen [brilliantly named] teams, many of them instantly recognisable from their parent companies: for example, the Panasonic Wild Knights, Toyota Verblitz, Toshiba Brave Lupus and current champions Suntory Sungoliath.

Each team is allowed three non-Japanese qualified players on the pitch at any one time, with the proviso that one of these is [or will be] eligible to play for Japan under the IRB’s residency rules. In addition, one player from another Asian union can also be on the pitch at the same time as the three ‘foreigners’ [for example, Kobelco Steelers have Wang Sibo of China and Hrishikech Pendse of India under contract]. In practice, each team has between four and nine non-Japanese players on their books.

While a number of super-duper stars have played in the league in recent years – Brad Thorn, Fourie du Preez, Sonny-Bill Williams, Jaque Fourie, Jerry Collins and George Smith amongst them – the regulation that one of the foreign players could possibly play for Japan in the future [which is akin to the IRFU’s ‘project player’ designation] means that there’s room for less well-known or accomplished players too. Leinster’s Andrew Goodman played a season for the Honda Heat, for example, and there’s a decent former Kiwi Super Rugby player in pretty much every squad.

This Stop, Auckland; Next Stop, Tokyo

New Zealand isn’t that close to anywhere, bar Australia. While a flight from Wellington to Tokyo will take in approximately 9825km and cost just about 12 hours of your life, it’s a damn sight closer than flying to Paris or London from the Shaky Isles; that’ll take you a full 24 hours and about 18800 kms away from home.

Plenty of stamps.

Plenty of stamps, plenty of stories. Make sure to tell everybody how good the All Blacks are while you’re abroad!

While those distances might be anathema to Europeans who’ve grown up in an era of low-cost, point-to-point airlines, Kiwis have always hankered after their OE – overseas experience  – so much so that it has become an ingrained part of their culture. Getting away from home is now a ritual of young adulthood, and while typically it takes place at a post-third level stage of their lives, that’s the prime of a professional rugby player’s career. While your mates might be doing heading off at 23 or 24 years old, a fledgling representative player would be cutting himself off at the knees by taking a year out at that stage. So, for a lot of Kiwi players, a stint abroad towards the end of their rugby career doubles as an opportunity to get a bit of delayed OE and to earn better money that they would at home.

Cash Money Homie

And the money can be very good. Superstar Sonny-Bill Williams is reputed to have signed the “largest one-season contract in rugby union history” with the Panasonic Wild Knights for the 2012-13 Top League season [although no figures have been published], and the league has become a popular watering hole for top-end southern hemisphere players of all nationalities, not just New Zealanders.

Wallaby centurion George Smith was rumoured to be on €800k p.a. at Suntory Sungoliath, and Springbok centre Jaque Fourie’s two year deal with Kobelco Steelers is reputed to be in the region of  R20-22m [between €845k-€930k p.a].

Of course, just like any aspect of life, you get out what you put into it. While a season in the Top League may be seen by some as an opportunity to featherbed their retirement and nothing else, others find it a profound experience. All Black legend Brad Thorn, who spent the last two Top League seasons with the Fukuoka Sanix Blues, was [to borrow from Munster coach Rob Penney’s vocabulary] rapt with his time in Japan:

“Japan has been awesome. Japan has been a privilege … A guy could be holding a street sign, I see it all the time, and he might have been doing that for 20 or 30 years, but he does that to the best of his ability. He’s proud of what he does.”

Jaque Fourie in action for Kobelco Steelers in the Japanese Top League.

Jaque Fourie in action for Kobelco Steelers in the Japanese Top League. Fourie is probably the highest paid rugby player in the world at the moment, although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much he earns. Suffice it to say that he’s not going hungry. And he sleeps on a bed of money. And the bed is very comfortable. And it’s very high off the ground.

Similarly, while one might expect Jaque Fourie to be enthusiastic given the salary he’s on, something about how he describes his time in Japan and his dealings with his club makes The Mole feel like he’s not faking it:

“Everyone goes to Europe. I wanted to do something different… something that didn’t revolve around rugby alone … I haven’t made myself available for the Boks during the two seasons I’ll spend at the Steelers because I want to give my full commitment to the club.”

“The Japanese people have been so welcoming and we love everything about the country, including the rugby. Kobe have been incredibly professional, patient and understanding in all of their dealings with me … so I thank them for that and look forward to enjoying success with the Steelers.”

Big In Italy

Michael Lynagh and David Campese share a joke in October 1992 during a Super 10 game between Amatori Milano and Benetton Treviso.

David Campese and Michael Lynagh share a joke in October 1992 during a Super 10 game between Amatori Milano and Benetton Treviso. The joke may have been about how they were technically still ‘amateur’.

Harking back to the Mark Egan era, this reminds The Mole of the attitude of various southern hemisphere stars like David Campese, John Kirwan, Michael Lynagh and Zinzan Brooke in the twilight days of amateurism. Back then, Italy was the favoured landing spot of Anzac internationals looking to experience a new culture and earn a few bucks [on the side, naturally].

At the time, the Italian Lira was a relatively strong currency: anecdotally, that explains why Serie A was the best football league in the world at the time, with the best Dutch [Gullit, van Basten, Rijkaard], German [Mattheus, Klinsmann, Bremer], Argentine [Maradona] and Brazilian [Careca] players togging out for Italian clubs. More prosaically, in 1990, 1NZ$ bought roughly 725 Lira.

At the time, house prices in Auckland averaged about NZ$160k, which translated to roughly 116m Lira. It’s informative in trying to establish the relative purchasing power available for a Kiwi plying his trade in Italy: if he could come up to the Northern Hemisphere, earn himself a fair wedge of Lira and get given free accommodation, he would likely look at knocking off as much from a mortgage as possible during his playing career.

John Devereux, who starred for Wales in the first Rugby World Cup in 1987 as a 21 year old and the Lions tour to Australia two years later, moved to Widnes and Rugby League in 1989, leaving a huge hole in Welsh rugby.

John Devereux starred for Wales in the first Rugby World Cup in 1987 as a 21 year old and made the Lions tour to Australia in 1989. That same year, he moved to Widnes and Rugby League in 1989, leaving a huge hole in Welsh rugby.

Because no figures regarding payments to Southern Hemisphere players in Italy in the late 1980s and early 1990s have ever really been discussed publicly – rugby was still supposedly amateur at the time – probably the most valuable exercise to determine what they might have earned is to examine the situation in comparison with the money available from Rugby League at the time.

People of a certain vintage might remember what a huge threat the Northern Code was to Union in the late 1980s, with top class internationals like John Devereux [a strapping Welsh centre in the Danie Gerber/Jaque Fourie mould who represented the British and Irish Lions in 1989] and Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies signing professional forms for Widnes at the peak of their union careers.

Zinzan Brooke might talk about the love of the game, but it was the cash from Italy as well as the opportunity to play for the All Blacks likely kept him in Union. Negotiating with League sides [and he was very close to signing with the Manly Sea Eagles at one stage] probably let him know what figures were available to a professional rugby player, and gave him a starting point in his negotiations with his Italian employers.

Jonathan Davies in his Widnes days. Davies' departure sparked fears of a mass exodus from Wales to the League, and it more or less panned out – big time players like Scott Gibbs and Scott Quinnell found their way north in the early 1990s, before Union went open.

Jonathan Davies in his Widnes days. Davies’ departure sparked fears of a mass exodus from Wales to the League, and it more or less panned out – big time players like Scott Gibbs and Scott Quinnell found their way north in the early 1990s, before Union went open.

In 1988-89 Davies was signed by Widnes for £150k: he wasn’t under contract to anyone at the time so while it was described by many in League circles as a transfer, it wasn’t like they gave the WRU the money – it went to Davies himself. The next year, current Wasps coach Dai Young’s ‘transfer fee’ from Cardiff RFC to Leeds was €165k – the ante had been considerably upped. That would still be decent money today, and a quarter of a century ago it was Premiership stuff.

In light of those figures from Rugby League, it doesn’t seem unrealistic to think that the likes of Campese and Brooke were earning £25-30k in Italy per season. With exchange rates the way they were, that meant that you could likely pay off the majority of the mortgage on a decent house in Auckland in two or three years.

Outside of the realities of pay-to-play, reading Brooke’s autobiography gives a real feeling of just what an eye-opener the experience was in terms of the lifestyle and habits of another culture. In those days, the expense of travel was restrictive to guys who had to hold down regular jobs as well as play international rugby; these days, it’s the professional life of a rugby player that can prove restrictive. Alan Quinlan wrote recently in the Irish Times that “as a professional rugby player, you come to rely on structure a lot, being told where to go and what to do, when to train and even what to eat.”

While there’s little doubt that the training, nutrition and sponsorship duties in Japan are recognisably similar to their home life to southern hemisphere players, literally every other experience are new to them.

It’s one of the reasons why The Mole isn’t that down on the gallivanting of James ‘Brand’ Haskell or Superstar Sunny-Bull Wull’yums: these lads are cramming all the experiences they can have into their athletic careers, playing all over the world with different types of people, and experiencing foreign cultures in a different way than they could do post-career as a tourist. There’s a lot to be said for an adventurous spirit.

Tipping The Scales

However, adventurous spirit or no, it’d be beyond naive not to recognise that a huge part of the attraction to Japan is the money. The cultural aspect might be very rewarding – if the player in question is receptive – but the rugby is of a far lower standard than these players are used to playing, so it’s difficult to see them getting any professional satisfaction out of it. Outside certain French multi-millionaire-backed powerhouses, with their laissez faire approach to the supposed salary cap, the amount of money available in the Far East is having a discernible knock-on effect when it comes to European teams recruiting Southern Hemisphere talent.

Back in 2008, Leinster were able to lure Rocky Elsom away from Australia after he had just been named 'Wallaby of the Year'. They wouldn't stand a chance these days.

Back in 2008, Leinster were able to lure Rocky Elsom away from Australia after he had just been named ‘Wallaby of the Year’. He joined a foreign legion of Felipe Contepomi, Chris Whitaker, CJ van der Linde, Isa Nacewa and Stan Wright: three highly experienced SH test players, a Super Rugby standout and … uh, miscellaneous. With the exception of Ulster – where players are paid in pounds – none of the other provinces have anything like that coterie of high quality non-Irish qualified players to call upon these days.

There are a number of factors involved: again, one of them is the currency market. In July 2008 [shortly before Rocky Elsom arrived in Dublin to play for Leinster], the Euro was strong against the Yen, trading at roughly €1 = ¥170; at the moment it’s trading at roughly €1 = ¥120 … that’s just about a 30% drop in value.

As we’ve outlined above, the Japanese teams are owned – not just sponsored – by enormous multinationals headquartered in the country, with cash resources that are quite mind-bending; for example, Toyota is the eleventh largest corporation in the world by revenue. In terms of supporting their clubs, and without being in any way fiscally irresponsible, they can afford to pay their foreign players a huge whack because they don’t have to pay the rest of their squad that much: there’s absolutely no market for Japanese players in any other league.

A chap like Jaque Fourie can come in and ask for a fortune, and the best Japanese player on the team isn’t going to say “pay me the same as Fourie or I’ll go to France” … he probably wouldn’t even get a spot in a pro team in any club in the Pro D2. He’s got no leverage. That’s just not the case in Ireland – there’s an international market for our test players, as Jonny Sexton’s move to Racing Metro has proven.

A South African Centre Flaps His Wings in Japan, And An Irish Province Gets Knocked Out Of The Heineken Cup In France

So even if Munster or Leinster did have enough money to pay somebody like Conrad Smith the €700k p.a. that he could probably earn in Japan [and he was out of contract with the New Zealand union, and he wanted to give up his All Black jersey, and he decided he wanted to play for an Irish province rather than live in Biarritz or Paris], what happens when Conor Murray or Sean O’Brien come up for contract negotiations and say “I’m as important to Munster/Leinster as Conrad Smith is, I want €700k p.a. too”?

Conor Murray has become a vitally important player for both Munster and Ireland. With Ruan Pienaar entrenched at Ulster, both Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss turning 33 this year and Kieran Marmion of Connacht as yet untried at test level, he's in a smashing bargaining position whenever his conract comes up for renewal.

Conor Murray has become a vitally important player for both Munster and Ireland. With Ruan Pienaar entrenched at Ulster, both Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss turning 33 this year and Kieran Marmion of Connacht as yet untried at test level, he’s in a smashing bargaining position whenever his conract comes up for renewal.

The player might have a very solid case that he is as important to Munster/Leinster as Conrad Smith, in that he’s a vitally important player and that there’s a huge step down from him to the next man in his position. On the other hand, once you set €700k p.a. as the benchmark for your best NIQ player, all the “he’s available to play 30+ matches per season” arguments don’t really cut it with the Irish player or his agent. Even if they accept that they’re not going to get €700k, they’re not going to be happy with an offer of €250-300k, because that’s less than 50% of what the top earner at the club makes.

You can see how that opens a can of worms: it’s a big difference being valued as worth 85-90% of the best player/highest earner at the club rather than 35-45%. It’s a slap in the face frankly, and while some will maintain that negotiations are all about cold hard cash at the end of the day’s negotiations, there’s more to it than that. Players want to feel appreciated, valued and secure, just like anybody else in a job. Saying that you’re worth less than half what another player earns doesn’t really help in that regard. If you’re a bit part player, and you don’t have that many other options, you just have to bite your tongue and sign on the line that is dotted. If you’re a regular test starter, not only do you have other options, you now have a bit of a grudge.

The Vichy League

The problem for the Irish provinces isn’t just Japanese wages though: as we’ve said before, the standard of rugby in the Top League is a long way off the pace, and that doesn’t really suit players who are looking for a genuine professional challenge rather than just a payday. You don’t become a world class player without having a competitive streak as wide as your back, and the Japanese league isn’t necessarily a great fit for those players who’ve still got fire in their bellies.

Mystifyingly, Stuart Barnes suggested in the Sunday Times that Bakkies might have a tough time against Leicester's 24 year old lock Ed Slater – and then repeated the calumny in his pre-match report for Sky Sports. What was he thinking? Bakkies isn't everybody's cup of tea, but he is one of the genuinely great second rows of the last decade.

Mystifyingly, Stuart Barnes suggested in the Sunday Times that Bakkies might have a tough time against Leicester’s 24 year old lock Ed Slater – and then repeated the calumny in his pre-match report for Sky Sports. What was he thinking? Bakkies isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but he is one of the genuinely great second rows of the last decade.

On the other hand, the French league is, to quote  Joe Schmidt’s memorable phrase, “a man-up-athon”. A season in the Top14 and the Heineken Cup will give you all the competition you need, and the money’s there too: Fleshlumpeater Bakkies Botha – a competitive animal if ever there was one – is on a three year deal in Toulon that’s estimated to be worth €700k p.a.

The television rights for the Top14 just keep getting more lucrative: their 2011 deal with Canal+ is estimated as being worth up to US$ 228m over five years, and while the performances of the French national team have declined in inverse proportion to the money coming into the French club game, the club owners aren’t the FFR. Most of them – judging from their actions and how they’ve flooded their squads with non-French players – don’t really give a shit about the national team, whatever they may say in public. Actions speak louder than words, and all their teams are full of foreigners.

Walk It Into The Net

Most sports fans will have heard or read that a major factor in Arsenal’s decline over the last decade has been their rigid wage structure, which has meant both that they’ve lost their top players to wealthier/more fiscally irresponsible teams, and have been unable to attract the top echelon of proven players, who can earn more money elsewhere … well, the Irish provinces are now in a similar situation.

The provinces are no longer at the top table when it comes to procuring players and, with the IRFU cutting down on the number of central contracts that take expensive players’ wages off the provincial books, they’ve got more mouths to feed as well.

Because they are restricted in terms of acquiring adequate replacements for valuable Irish players by dint of NIQ regulations [as a major part of the provincial remit is providing players for the Irish national team], the players themselves have more leverage than they had in previous years when it comes to negotiating with their provinces.

When you combine those in-house squad management factors with the decline of the euro, the rising wages for star players in privately owned, multi-millionaire-backed French clubs [in a big market country where rugby is firmly entrenched as a national game] and the emergence from relative obscurity of the Japanese Top League teams as extremely generous paymasters, we may have already seen the back of the NIQ glory days in Irish rugby.

46 thoughts on “Where’ve All The Rude Boys Gone? Japan

  1. Long time reader – First time poster. Brilliant as ever Mole!

    To further your argument, as long as the contingency of a weak euro and wealthy Top 14 continues: our best Irish players will leave for moneyer climes.

    Does this mean the end of Irish Province hegemony in the HEC, the fast-tracking of decent development players (e.g. JJ Hanrahan/Ian Madigan) into the respective province’s first 15, and the subsequent improvement of the Irish Team?

    An inverse scale as it were between provincial and national success? Or is this just silly, as the rise in Irish Rugby fortunes since the 90s is intimately intertwined with the provinces?

    Apologies, lots of question marks! Is there an answer to this or is the only response: ‘the future is not my period’.

    Cheers for your amazing blog keeping us exiles up to speed with decent Irish rugby talk!

  2. Stonking effort, DM.
    I’m fairly certain Jamie Heaslip’s brother Richie played 4 or 5 years in Japan too. He’d certainly have a few contacts when the current Irish captain comes to re-negotiate his contract.

  3. Brilliant as ever Mole but no mention of the tax break that we give to the players. Players who get a competitive salary for 10+ years would be looking at tax back of €1M+. Compare that to tax in France and we do have something of an ace up our sleeves. I am not familar with Japan’s tax system. Murray and O’Brien will almost certainly achieve 10 years at the top whereas Sexton only started on good money after his 25th birthday…

    • Interesting point on the tax break, but the 10 year restriction may make it less enticing to a lot of players, especially those looking at Ferris’ case. To late bloomers like Ross, or even Sexton, and for those in high-collision, high-attrition positions or whose style of play leaves them vulnerable (Ferris) its a risky call.

      You’ve got to do a cash-in-hand vs tax-break-in-the-bush calculation. Given the state of the IRFU coffers, will they pay you well for 10 years? Will the tax break even exist in 10 years given the state of the budget in Ireland? Is there a load of talent coming through in your position (back row seems to be especially competitive)?

      For players with a relatively shorter career expectancy, taking a wedge today may well the smarter move, regardless of any tax break.

      • Fair points but I think the government will leave well enough alone. I imagine it costs the exchequer less than €10M a year which compared to the amount generated by high quality rugby games must be close to €100M pa directly in to the economy.
        Any idea if the Ulster platers on central contracts can claim it? Bowe’s emplyer is in Dublin and presumably he has a gaff in Monaghan so he surely can.
        I imagine that both O’Brien & Murray will be offered central contracts somewhere in the region of €350K in their next round and should get 10 years in the game.

      • Murray I can see making the ten year bet. O’Brien, I’m not so sure – wing forward is a risky position. Look at Rocky Elsom – Wallaby captain and key player one year, injured and cast off the next. Tom Croft is just back from serious injury, Ferris, Tom Rees etc etc. Quite apart from the risk of loss of form, a conveyor belt of young talent, falling out of favour with new coaches at provincial / national level…I’d say SOB would have to give serious consideration to a big French contract if one came his way.

      • There’s no “ten-year bet”; what the restriction says is that you can claim a rebate for any 10 years of your career, not that you have to have earned for ten years.

        So if Peter O’Mahony retired injured next year, he could claim the rebate despite only having earned for two or three seasons; when Drico retires, he’ll get his tax back for whichever were the 10 highest-earning years of his career.

      • Toro Toro, your point is valid, but its still leaves a top class player making a calculated bet.
        You’re taking lower pay in Ireland assuming that you will save enough in taxes to compensate for the earnings you’d have had overseas. If you think you’ll earn at a high level for the duration, it’s one thing, but if you believe you may only have a few years at the top it’s another entirely. An uncertain future tax rebate on a (potentially) small sum, versus a definite larger sum today – which you can invest and grow.

      • No, seriously, it’s not. Unless you think you’d actually *spend* more than ten years abroad earning big money -and no Irish player is in that situation, possibly only Geordan Murphy has ever been – you simply add 40% to whatever the offer is. For up to 10years, you get a 40% bump on that year’s salary, because your tax is rebated. It’s not any more risky for Ross, Sexton, Ferris, than for Hagan, Madigan, Henderson.

        I think you’ve just misunderstood how this works.

      • No problem understanding the pro forma tax comparison, thanks, and no arguments on that issue. Though to do it right, you’d have to time discount to get the present value of the future tax rebate against the value of the overseas earnings, which you get sooner, so the extra value is going to be less than 40%.

        I have probably misunderstood some of the details of qualifying for the rebate. Don’t you have to finish your career in Ireland to get the break? And do the (up to) ten years not have to be consecutive? Could you just come back and tog out for an AIL team for a season at the end of your career to qualify?

      • Yeah, you need to discount the time. But that’s not *that* much of a risk, any more than investing the money in anything it’ll be tied up in for a few years.

        You have to finish your career in Ireland, yeah, but there’s no restriction about the level you finish at (since the break is *primarily* for small earners in much more marginal sports); so Peter Stringer probably won’t play for Munster again, but somebody in Shannon will bung him €200 to play a J3s match, even if he’s having trouble walking. Indeed, I don’t think there’s a legal obstacle to Peter Stringer *paying* Shannon the money to hire a new J3 scrum-half – whoever that might be! – for his last few matches before retirement.

        The ten years definitely don’t have to be consecutive, no. They can be *any* ten years in which tax was paid in Ireland on sporting income.

  4. It’s a fascinating read and it opens up a whole host of questions. From the perspective of Irish players taking interest in their province’s/national team’s players, Sexton next two seasons in France will be absolutely fascinating. Seeing as the IRFU make most of their money through the Internationals, would a larger exodus of players be hugely detrimental? Or would it open up opportunities for young talent? The fan loyalty to the provinces is fairly ingrained, unlike with Welsh or Scottish regions.

  5. Jamie Heaslip’s older brother Richard and some would say more talented also played in this league in the late 90s. Richard was also an Oxford Blue.

  6. Back in the 1980s, Barnesy was selected for Wales after a good showing for Oxford in the Varsity game – in the event, he turned them down to hold out for England (he went to school in Wales, the same as Stephen Jones the ST curmudgeon), but playing well in that game was considered good preparation for a Five Nations starts at outhalf in a Wales jersey

  7. Ultimately NIQs are not good for Irish rugby. While the perfectly valid argument remains that some NIQ’s influence has gone above and beyond an on-field contribution and has helped to set standards and develop a culture (e.g. John Langford, Doug Howlett, Rocky Elsom), ultimately they are taking the place of Irish players and we simply don’t have enough teams to support the current levels of permissible NIQs. This leads to situations such as the current tight-head situation. As it stands, we have three teams which can put you in the shop window for Ireland… and Connacht. If there is an NIQ in one specialist position, take scrum half with Pienaar at Ulster, this means that there are in reality there are two options playing frontline (H-Cup) rugby for their province. If we have an injury from one of those two, as we currently do, we have the situation where a provincial sub is Ireland’s back-up scrum half. So, I say reduce the number of permissible NIQs from 3 to 1. We’ll kill two birds with one stone, more Irish players will get game time and it will help the IRFU to better balance its books.

    For the same reason, if someone like Murray wanted to go, let him go… I don’t see what the fear is of Irish players leaving the country for France, especially positions like scrum-half or out-half where the attrition rate is relatively low. That said, even if a Healy was to leave for France; would it be such a bad thing to have our loose-head play in the toughest scrummaging league in the world?

    • The problem with our best players leaving for France is that the provinces will no longer be competitive in the Heineken or maybe even the Rabo, ticket and merchandise sales will be down and the provinces will be back at square one financially. Accordingly, interest in the game will wane and playing numbers at local and underage levels will decrease. That’s pretty bad if you ask me.

      • Irish fans fickle?! Where did you get a notion like that?? I think there is a greater underlying issue of the primacy of province-versus-country for both players and supporters to be honest. I guess my point is while the provinces would certainly suffer from a French exodus, the national team could prosper from not having to play in the shadow of successful provinces and having individual players exposed to competitive leagues. If, in this case, the national team did prosper, we wouldn’t have the issue of interest waning at grassroots level, financial issues etc.

        Would be keen to hear your thoughts

      • Interesting point sound steve. That is a possible outcome if there was a player exodus but I’d prefer not have to find out!
        I think we should look at making our own league more competitive rather than letting our best go to another. If we want a competitive league to challenge the clout of the Top 14, the provinces/IRFU in conjunction with the other Celtic and Italian teams need to get the finger out and sort out Heineken qualification based on merit along with promotion of the Rabo (TV/adverts/ticket deals etc). I live in Edinburgh and the only people here who know about games/ tv broadcasts etc are the ones who seek it out – there’s no incentive for a randomer to just decide to pop along to a game. Rumour has it sky are picking up the rabo next season which will be a step in the right direction in terms of promotion (provided they show enough games) but I do feel more has to be done asap.

    • I would argue that someone like Isa has been very good for Irish rugby. Sure he takes a jumper off an Irish kid in the Heineken but that same kid appreciates his leadership when they line up together in the Rabo. Ditto Pienaar. Do you really think Ulster would have given Jackson complete ownership of the 10 jumper if they didn’t have him beside him to take the pressure off? Wallace helps too of course! Maybe reduce it to 2. 1 back, 1 forward and as many project players as you want.
      With regard to seeing Irish players to the airport if they want to go, that is very dangerous. We already know that French clubs offer the South Sea Islanders 2 contracts. One if they want to play for their country and another if they retire from Internationals other than the World Cup. Why would they not do this to Irish players?

    • To be honest, if an Irish player would be willing to sacrifice playing for Ireland for the sake of a few quid, we’re probably better off without them.

      I see your point of having an experienced international to hold the young players’ hands when the internationals are away but as you said maybe we could pare this back to two. As for project players, I think we should be cautious in our approach to this. These guys are essentially mercenaries and while they are very useful for positions where genetics let us down – tight-head, or a scrummaging second row – I think we should use a bit of caution with them.

  8. Could find ourselves in a welsh type system where we have our Top 10/15 players leave and it opens up places.don’t think the exodus will be as bad provided our academy still provides top coaching and the IRFU don’t just turn there back on the provinces.(though what’s going on between the regions and the WRU is baffling)
    It comes down to a question of talent,do we produce enough quality players to replace those gone.there won’t always be a madigan for sexton or a Henderson for ferris available.

  9. Is this the demise of the NIQ superstar era? Maybe … is that a bad thing for Irish Rugby, only time will tell. Personally I think we have the talent to fill in for the departed superstars. Also I don’t think this will benefit Ireland at the expense of the Provinces, the logic of what is good for Ireland is bad for the Provinces and vice versa is lost on me e.g. winning 5 HCups in 7 yrs was actually a bad thing for Ireland, Thornley or Kidney can explain that head f@ck to you… I can’t.

    Nothing proves a player’s ability than game time. Throw the young-uns in and let them off.

  10. I’ve had this article open all day to froth my fury over it but I’ll limit it to this:
    Pay-as-you-play? I’m not surprised Ferris has told the IRFU to stick their Euro’s up their backside.

    • It’s pretty tough to offer him any better, the guy is constantly injured. Frankly, it’s a bonus when he’s fit but Ulster and Ireland aren’t able to include him in long term plans because his fitness is just not reliable enough. So he’s not worth a central contract based on that,and maybe Ulster don’t want to spend their own cash on a player they can’t bank on. I think the IRFU/Ulster made the right call this time.

    • 85 games for the province in a career started in 2005?avaerage 10/11 games a year?think its pretty tough but he would be commanding a massive salary.pay for 4/5 lads just out of academy or an injured star? tough times and calls to be made. one of irelands few genuinely world 15 players on his day.Harsh treatment but with an injury profile like his has he become the Michael Owen of irish rugby?

  11. Jimbob, that’s the first thought that entered my head but it doesn’t add up by comparison to other centrally contracted players – Luke Fitz for example.

    I think this is another example of sacrificing the long term gain (getting Ferris fit again through a tier 1 rugby system where a central agency (IRFU) can control his treatment, rehabilitation and return to playing) in favour of getting a higher risk, centrally contracted player off the books in the hope that he will enforce his own international holidays on a foreign club. I just can’t see how letting him go to be the party piece in a 3rd or 4th level league is in the interest of the national team.

    • I’m pretty sure Luke Fitz only has a Leinster deal which mean the branch saw enough there themselves and the IRFU had nothing to do with it. Both cases are very similar but ultimately it’s down to the province to offer a deal which works economically for them.

      It’s a huge loss to Irish rugby if Ferris goes off to Japan and I don’t think there’s anyone to blame, it’s just an unfortunate set of circumstances which have lead us here.

    • Actually, you’re right about Luke Fitz there Jimbob but I never let the facts get in the way of a good rant!

      The central contracts system baffles me to be honest – who has one? Who dishes them out? What are the terms of the offers? Can a province offer a player a contract over the heads of the IRFU?

      • Now thems some questions for another day I think!

        The central contracts and the criteria to get one is anyone’s guess. Some players have been offered them seemingly too late in their careers (ROG, DOC) and some without yet proving their worth (POM – although I do feel that turned out to be a good bet). I also have heard that SOB declined a central in favour of a Leinster contract so that he could manage his own image rights.

      • AFAIK, it’s less about *managing* his image rights than about the amount of time that the promotional duties take up; firstly, they’re a pain in the hole, and secondly, they eat into farmin’ time.

  12. What way does the tax back work with Ulster players. Surely if they’re under an Ulster provincial contract it would be UK tax being paid therefore there is no tax back?

    • 4 wins out of last 5 and if they win their game in hand over Treviso go 7th.either way better than the worst team in Scotland,wales and Italy. you would have to expand on your point on why they should go or else go Troll somewhere else.

      • Irish provinces will lose a few more top players to the money in France. French clubs are getting stronger due to the talent they are bringing in, Irish provinces, losing a couple of key players like Sexton, will get weaker. In order to compete they will need to offer more money, or be also rans in the HC. People wont be filling the grounds to follow Ulster, Leinster or Munster if they are not competing for knock out stages. Then we have a vicious cycle with revenue and competitiveness decreasing.

        Cutting Connacht, whose contribution to the national team is tiny compared to the cost, will allow more money from the IRFU to the three main provinces.
        Three competitive provinces will be the unfortunate consequence. It will have to be the Roscommon General of Irish rugby

        Yossarian – you’d be a damn fool to think any different.

      • Fuck the national team, then. Even if your workings didn’t suggest, to quote a phrase, the mind of a “damn fool”.

  13. So on the one hand their players are not good enough for the national team,but then they are going to replace the (not as yet)departing stars without a drop off for the provinces?Financially connacht don’t cost the IRFU that much and as you pointed out the have so few international players they don’t have players on the central contracts.
    Kill the game where it is growing rapidly to (not adequately) resource the other three provinces. Connacht are producing results using indigenous young players. The 20’s won the inter pro recently and in recent seasons have contributed regularly to the competitive U20 national side. you want that pathway for players like Griffin,O’Halloran,Henshaw ended for potentially limited benefit to keep some fair weather fans coming to games?How many young children will take up the game out west without a local team to identify with?As it is players are leaving minor GAA sides to take up rugby for the chance to be a pro athlete These guys will eventually start contributing to the national side.
    You have a very short term response in reaction to as yet ONE player moving to France.
    The provinces have been competitive through nurturing indigenous talent, as long as the provinces continue to invest and trust in their youth structures Irish rugby will stay in a healthy state even if 3/4 front liners leave. We might not be winning the competition outright again soon(as it is there might not be a competition in a couple of seasons) but to think we won’t be getting past the group stages is a little alarmist.

    • I couldn’t agree more Yossarian, and I’m a Leinster fan. Connacht have been an example of everything that’s good in Irish rugby. Developing players, bringing fans and kids into the game, punching above their weight while trying to play attractive rugby. If the proposal is to cut funding to Connacht and the grass roots so as to fund a daft arms race at the top end, I say f**k it and let the French pay the pensions of the top players. I’d rather we focused on growing the base of the game in a sustainable manner.

  14. Hey Yossarian
    Not talking about filing the other provinces with Connacht players. Talking about using the money the IRFU give to subsidise Connacht, to ensure the big three provinces can remain in contention at european level, by keeping their top players and when bringing in overseas players, ensuring they are top level.

    The IRFU currently subsidises all the provinces. I believe that if they do not increase this to the 3 big provinces, they will fall further behind at european level (the remarkable achievements of Joe Schmidt have helped hide the fact that the Irish provinces are now longer on a level playing field with the top French clubs and English with the new injections of cash they will be receiving).

    The provinces have been competitive because they have been able to keep the majority of the talent they produce and supplement it with god overseas players. You hugely overestimate the strength of Irish rugby is you think it will stay healthy if 3/4 front liners leave – It will be a crisis if 1/4 front liners leave.

    Competing in the knockout stages in Europe is what interests most provincial followers. Without this season tickets will fall hugely and with this decreasing revenue more of the top players will leave. This is the vicious cycle that i refer to.

    In relation to Connacht’s young players – the best young players will be taken up by the other province’s academies. The others will have to look overseas to be professional players
    The English Premiership produces as many players for the Irish national team as Connacht. In fact to give example, I believe that going to Harlequins and scrummaging in a tougher league was better for Mike Ross development as a player than going to Connacht would have been.

    In terms of developing the game in the west there are big downsides to getting rid of Connacht as a pro team. I just dont see any alternative. The hope would be that people in Connacht would be able to support Robbie Henshaw playing for say Munster. Also there is the Irish team to follow, if it is successful it will generate interest in the game throughout the country.

    And by the way – fair weather fans are vital to Irish provinces, why they need to remain competitive.

  15. Actually, the more i think about it, the provinces are banjaxed no matter what they do. Unfortunately, the Rabo league is going to die a slow death over the next few years. There is just not enough interest to survive the drain of the better players that has begun and is accelerating. It is either join a league with the English teams (not sure how that would work) or say goodbye to full time pro rugby in the Celtic countries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s