Thursday 27 November 2014

The sales pitch: Players are preparing for life beyond rugby

Kim Bielenberg on how the Irish rugby team took their talents off field to become big business players

Driving ambition: Brian O’Driscoll as an ambassador for Lexus. INPHO/BILLY STICKLAND

All eyes will be on the Irish rugby team as they make their bid for Triple Crown glory at Twickenham today. But away from the crowds, off the pitch, players have been preparing for life beyond the game.

Several members of the squad are now heavily involved in business and hope that an eager entrepreneurial spirit will seal their fortunes long after they have hung up their boots.

George Best famously said in a less politically correct era: "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just wasted."

This generation of Irish rugby players, by contrast, run their own companies, invest in hi-tech start-ups, do business degrees and Master's programmes, and pore over balance sheets and profit-and-loss accounts.

The bearded centre Gordon D'Arcy recently started a Pilates business to add to his investment in a pub; Jamie Heaslip is involved in a software company; Tommy Bowe, who will miss today's game due to injury, has his own range of shoes; and at least one member of the squad is believed to have spent the off-season doing an internship with a firm of stockbrokers.

They may earn six-figure sums – and in the case of Johnathan Sexton up to €700,000 – but rugby players are not in the same league as English Premier League footballers when it comes to earning power while they are playing (the soccer stars typically earn over €40,000 a week).

"If you are a top professional footballer you can easily earn enough in your career so that you do not have to work again," says former rugby international Jerry Flannery, who co-founded an internet publishing business before his retirement.

"It is not the same in rugby. The money is good, but you still have to plan for a career after retirement, and work out what job you will do.

"That is why the players are already building careers outside the game. A lot of them are smart, clued-in guys."

The career of professional rugby players can be very short, and they face the constant threat that the job will suddenly finish because of injury.

As he nears the end of his playing days at the age of 34, it is understandable that Gordon D'Arcy has his eye on the future. He is finishing a degree in economics at UCD, and is increasingly turning his attention to business interests outside the game.

Four years ago, he invested in the Exchequer Bar, a "gastropub" in the centre of Dublin, which has been known to serve a Six Nations sausage. He said earlier this month that he hoped to open a second bar.

At first glance, opening a Pilates studio with his wife Aoife may not seem like a natural fit for someone from the macho world of rugby. However, Pilates is increasingly seen by players as a way of strengthening their backs.

Of course, the greatest commercial strength for rugby players is their own image – and this has enabled some to turn into virtual walking billboards as brand ambassadors.

BOD is a director and 45pc shareholder of the company. Last year, it established itself as the most popular rugby app in the world.

The player is also a significant shareholder of the Ikon Talent Management Agency, which negotiates deals on behalf of other stars, including Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy.

O'Driscoll said recently of his business interests: "There have been a couple of things I've been involved in launching that have been a bit more public, but I've always had other things tipping away in the background because at times you can be very busy, but other times you can have a lot of spare time."

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