Agents becoming bigger players as money floods into the game
Published 30/01/2016 | 02:30
Sky Sports supremo Jim White wouldn't last long if he decided to report on the Irish rugby transfer market.
He would generally be utterly bored with the lack of activity, but the past few weeks would have had him gasping for breath.
"I'm going to have to interrupt you there Natalie," White would probably pant on live TV to his fellow presenter.
"I've just had a call on my mobile with the very latest on the future of one of Ireland's superstars who is about to leave the shores of the Green Isle. Aye, I'm talking big here. But wait, this is extraordinary. I've also just got a text from someone in Ireland saying stop rabbiting on - star player has just signed a new contract with the Irish FA of rugby. Can you believe that Natalie darling? I never thought Ireland in the transfer market could be so exciting…"
It isn't. Irish rugby is nothing like football, where constant information and rumour about a player's movements and tittle-tattle during a transfer window is served up to the public.
When news broke on Wednesday that Keith Earls had signed a new three-year contract with the IRFU, mixed in with the relief was some annoyance at the perception that we'd been sold a dummy the previous day with a report in this newspaper that Earls was on the verge of leaving Munster for England.
The Saracens scoop was accurate. If the latest on his future hadn't been reported, Earls may never have agreed a deal with the IRFU. And while it was easy to dismiss Munster assistant coach Ian Costello's dismissal of Earls leaving as "speculation", he knew enough to be aware that talks with the IRFU would progress over the next day. Which they did.
It seems like we all become pawns in a story like this.
The threat of Earls leaving resulted in disappointment and outrage which resulted in the IRFU announcing a new contract for Earls within 24 hours, which resulted in some fans feeling their emotions had been played with, which resulted in promises to never get caught up in contract speculation again, which resulted in questions about what kind of role the agent had to play in all of this.
But the agent isn't always the one looking for the public to fight for his client on his behalf - Earls' representative, for example, wasn't involved in the leak this week.
Generally, using the media to try to get improved terms for a player is the oldest trick in the book for an agent.
But Ryan Constable, director of Esportif International, says it's not the way he does business. Constable is one of Ireland's top agents and has an Irish client list which includes Rory Best, Tommy Bowe, Dave Kearney and Ian Madigan.
It wasn't a game of bluff with Madigan, who sealed a move to France last month as the out-half followed through on reports linking him with a move to Bordeaux.
"The variables that determine a player's market value are complex and I don't believe media coverage of the process influences the outcome of a negotiation," Constable says.
"There is clearly an appetite from the general public to be kept informed on how negotiations are progressing and ultimately it is up to the individual player and province as to what they are comfortable divulging during that process.
"I don't think keeping anyone other than his client informed is part of an agent's remit."
Niall Woods, managing director of Navy Blue, says he operates on a general rule that a deal does not appear in the papers until a contract is signed.
Woods has a client list which includes Rhys Ruddock, Garry Ringrose (who he signed before Christmas) and Marty Moore. The report of Moore's agreement to join Wasps earlier this month was followed by an attempt from the Irish management to change his mind. But it was too late.
"There was no to-ing and fro-ing," Woods insists. "The IRFU were well aware of the situation all along. And it wasn't a rushed decision from Marty."
With the speculation a few weeks ago that James Cronin was about to leave Munster lasting as long as a gin and tonic in the Celebrity Big Brother house, it was unnecessary that this story got a public airing, with the announcement of Cronin's new Munster contract coming later that day.
Woods says most players don't want their details to ever get into the papers before the deal is done. The danger, surely, of any agent using the media as a bargaining tool is that fans may not take as much notice the next time for a case which deserves a public outcry. The boy who cried wolf etc.
But agents, who get paid between 5-10pc of base remuneration from clubs in Europe for a new player contract, don't always have to play dice with the union/provinces through the media to get contracts over the line because the money on offer from English and French clubs can do that for them.
In one particular case, an offer from an English club for one of Woods' clients doubled in price from the previous season. The province involved realised it simple had to up its offer and an agreement was reached.
As well as the current strength of sterling, the English clubs spending power is only going to increase. Next season the top Premiership clubs will be able to spend more than £8m, which could rise close to the £10m mark by 2017/18.
Agents know how these leagues work - so how does Constable believe the provinces can hold onto their players?
"Given the current inflationary pressure on players' salaries, there maybe a point in the future where the funding model currently employed to service the professional game on the island of Ireland needs to be revised to allow an injection of private equity," Constable states.
"The current ownership structure which has served the game so well to this point would make it very difficult to achieve this in anything other than a private benefactor."
Professional rugby is still a relatively young sport, without the sort of transfers and money that would get Jim White all excited. But we know how the market is growing in England and France. And agents will become bigger players in this game.