Sport Rugby

Thursday 23 February 2017

Conor O'Shea: Raheem Sterling situation shows football has lost the run of itself, but rugby following the same path

We must halt financial arms race before it distorts rugby landscape

Conor O'Shea

Charles Piutau
Charles Piutau

Michael Lewis's seminal book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, is about the talent identification and recruitment policy of Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics. It sets out in some detail how a low-budget team went about defying the odds to win.

The essence of what Billy Bean, the Oakland Athletics' general manager, did was to identify lower-league players through statistical analysis and give those players an opportunity ahead of expensive headliners. In creating his team he stole a march on others who were over-paying players who were not making the difference, and saved money for those who were.

It is the same in all sports. You have piano pushers and piano players, players who make the difference, and everyone within the team knows they do and never begrudge them what they earn. On the other hand, the worst thing you can do in any team, or any job for that matter, is overpay players who are not significant in the overall scheme of things. Those overpaid players create a marketplace that can cause an escalation in prices and budgets become stretched.

In the week that Raheem Sterling refused to sign a £100,000-a-week contract with Liverpool, the football team I have supported since I was a kid, you wonder has the game completely lost the run of itself. But is rugby also headed that way?

Last week Ulster announced the signing of Charles Piutau. The New Zealander is a brilliant rugby player but is he the difference? Is he worth the reputed £500,000 a year to not just Ulster but to the marketplace? Irish players such as Tommy Bowe, Robbie Henshaw and Simon Zebo, to name but three, may well be looking and saying 'if Piutau is worth that, then pay me that when my next contract comes or I'm off'. Suddenly an arms race is taking place where only the wealthiest can win. If you can't match them you will never keep up.

True there are salary caps in place in England (where I work) and in France (so they say) but how long will that last if the money being paid for the likes of Piutau becomes the norm? We are going down a path in rugby that football did years ago and sadly no one appears to be trying to stop it.

I do not begrudge the players. They, like all professional sportspeople, deserve what they get, but what we still have in rugby, just, is a game in which anyone can win on any given day, but the further we move into professionalism the more the game is becoming what your finances are as opposed to the structures you have in place.

Toulon, European Champions for the past two years, have undoubtedly, in Bernard Laporte, a brilliant head man, but they have bought their way up the leagues and at times are playing fantasy rugby, with a budget distant from the reality of the majority. So as we look at this weekend's Champions Cup, yes there are loads of teams competing but there are only a few who can realistically win unless you get lucky on a number of fronts. The more we allow the money to be driven up, the fewer the teams we will have with a realistic ability to win.

Will there always be an Oakland Athletics in baseball, or an Atletico Madrid in football? Yes, there will always be outliers people point to, but they will become the exception as opposed to the rule. Money can buy you a lot: look at Chelsea and Manchester City and how they have been transformed. From a rugby point of view we have an opportunity to maintain the situation where people do not know the outcome in advance, but we need to move forward with care. If we start overpaying players we will create a marketplace that agents will love but not many teams will be able to shop in and as time goes by the winners will become a small, elite group.

Johnny Sexton moved to Racing Metro on big money and is coming back to Leinster on big money. He is a one-off as a player and everyone knows it, so no one in the Leinster squad will begrudge him or wonder should they be on his money. They know with him they can win things and any team would want him.

The question is, is Piutau the same? Will Bowe and others look at him and say he is worth that much money and when it comes to their next contract will they be looking for similar. The market has been set, so now who can keep up?

There are plenty of examples of well-run systems and well-policed salary caps. America offers the best templates, but the question is do we in rugby want to grasp the opportunity before it is too late?

Sunday Indo Sport

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