Alan Quinlan: Provincial rugby at a crossroads and it must evolve to avoid full-blown crisis
Published 16/01/2016 | 02:30
You wake in the middle of the night and find yourself thinking about another time, another century. You remember how it was back then. You were 23 years old when a call came from England.
"We think you're a brilliant player, Quinlan," the man from London Irish says. "We'd like you to become one of ours. You'll get £40,000-a-year."
Forty. Thousand. Pounds. A. Year.
Each word a sentence.
You are blown away, even though all your life all you've dreamed about is playing rugby for Munster and Ireland - not London Irish, Bath or Cardiff, the other two clubs who pick up the phone and make the same offer.
But money talks. Six months earlier you were on £130-a-week as a mechanic. Munster called. You answered. Now you are on £7,500 a year and think you're living the dream until London Irish are on the phone ready to multiply that wage. You are giving it thought until another call comes, this one from Munster. "You're doing well, Alan. We can give you €25,000 a year if you sign." You don't haggle. Instead you consider your prospects of playing for Ireland and winning things with Munster and you do business with the club on your doorstep. And throughout your career you go through the same charade. "Alan we've an offer from France."
"Really?" you say.
Yet you don't care because you know you'll stay. Munster are chasing a Heineken Cup, you are chasing a place in the Ireland team and the difference between home and abroad is never more than 20 or 30 thousand euros a year. Why move? What was there to be gained?
And then all of a sudden on this night, the answer comes. You are 35 years old, a year away from retirement and a year into fatherhood. The calls from England and France have long since stopped. All of a sudden you are thinking about your little boy in your hands and you know you have a duty to care for him.
And you think back to those earlier stages of your career, when you were more marketable, when people wanted you, when you could have signed on a dotted line for an English or French club and your future could have been financially enhanced.
But it isn't just you and AJ, your son, you are thinking about. A few days earlier Ian Dowling, a team-mate, was forced to retire. He was just 29, the victim of a freakish injury. You're aware of how rugby is changing, how the hits are getting harder and careers are getting shorter.
And this is the night it dawns on you, that if your circumstances had been slightly different, if you had have been slightly younger when AJ came along, if you had have been more aware of the perils of your trade, you might have made a different choice.
* * * * *
All this came back to me this week when the news broke that Marty Moore might be on his way to Wasps. And I thought about the new reality facing the IRFU and the provinces. Whereas once they had the structures in place to offer financial packages that were comparable to what the richest clubs in England and France were able to provide, now, more than ever, rugby has become a numbers game. The Pro12 has a €12 million-a-year deal, the Aviva Premiership's annual deal is worth £40 million, the Top 14 clubs in France divide €76 million in TV money between them each year.
At ground level, it is the players who now hold the upper hand in negotiations. I found all that out for myself this week, picking up the phone to a couple of old pals now working in the Top 14. They tell me the figures, how the top international players can get €60,000 a month, the reasonably good ones between €20-30,000 a month, the average ones about €10,000 a month.
And here? Here the Irish provinces operate off budgets a fifth of the size of what the French clubs do. Any wonder then that Ian Madigan's head got turned by Bordeaux or Johnny Sexton's by Racing?
And because of the financial power of French clubs, Irish rugby is standing at a crossroads. We are not in crisis. That's too strong a word. Yet if we don't evolve and accept the new reality then the potential is there for us to arrive at a crisis in a few years' time.
Last autumn was a seismic one in Irish rugby. In front of 1.1 million people, the third biggest television audience of the year in this country - bigger than either of the All-Ireland finals, bigger than Ireland's victory over Germany in the European Championship qualifier, bigger even than 'Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas Special', Ireland played Argentina.
Everyone watched. Everyone expected. And after 20 minutes everyone realised that the script wasn't quite as predictable as we all had hoped. The party ended and the players came home. But the hangover had kicked in. Leinster lost to Wasps, Ulster to Saracens, Munster to Leicester after beating Treviso.
Yet away from the public eye, two other seismic events were taking place, events which only a few were witness to, but which could shape the short- to medium-term future of Irish rugby players. At Leinster, mid-way through the World Cup, Kevin McLaughlin announced his retirement. He is 31. Gone. Just like that. A couple of weeks later, the Munster players were sympathising with Felix Jones. Like McLaughlin, injury had forced him to call it a day. He is 28.
And right around those Munster and Leinster dressing rooms, players saw the future with a piercing clarity. Suddenly they knew - just as I did on that sleepless night back in April 2010 - that this rugby life isn't forever, that your value will drop as you get older and then one day, before you know it, it disappears altogether.
It is not that someone keeps this fact a secret from you. It's just that you need a dose of reality to fully understand it. You need a story like Ian Dowling's or Kevin McLaughlin's or Felix Jones' before you appreciate that you have a choice to make between playing rugby with dreams in your head or money in your pocket.
So from here on in, with more lucrative offers on the table from clubs in England and France, we could expect more tales like Marty Moore's or Ian Madigan's or JJ Hanrahan's. We are back at another crossroads. There is a need to evolve. A new problem faces Irish rugby and it stems from the English and French markets. That is where the money is. We need to make sure that is not where our best players end up.