Foreign route can be a path to success
Published 30/08/2013 | 05:00
The high-profile move by Jonny Sexton and Ronan O'Gara to Racing Metro has undoubtedly brought the focus again on Irish players moving abroad to play their club rugby.
I'm sure there are a lot of players throughout Ireland who are giving thought to whether such a move would be of benefit to their careers.
It all depends on a player's own circumstances. During my time with Munster, it just wasn't an issue. On the one hand, we felt were being looked after and on the other, we were so engrossed with trying to win silverware, particularly in those years leading up to the first Heineken Cup success.
The only time I seriously considered moving abroad was towards the end of my career, actually around the time that my last contract was being sorted.
Leicester Tigers came in with a very attractive offer and I gave it serious consideration. When I was starting all the time for Munster and Ireland, the notion of moving abroad didn't really feature but when I wasn't, the idea of going became a real option.
In the end I felt it just wasn't the right move for me at the time, but I did give it serious thought.
There are many reasons players will decide not to leave Ireland but there is no doubt, the tax relief package which is available to a player when he retires here is a huge incentive. Basically, once a player retires here, he is entitled to a tax rebate from 10 years.
It is available to all professional sports people in the country, but the IRFU has probably benefited more than any other body. Players know that if they head abroad there is no guarantee they will get a contract back in Ireland and, as a result, would miss out on that tax rebate. That's a huge incentive to remain in Ireland.
That's not likely to apply to Jonny if he wants to return in a couple of years, but it does stop a lot of others from leaving. However, a few years abroad can be very beneficial. Mick O'Driscoll prospered when he went to Perpignan and Munster and Ireland benefited for years afterwards.
Denis Fogarty did very well at Aurillac last year and made the Pro12 team of the year, while the likes of Brian Hayes has gone there this year and, hopefully, it will help him develop his potential.
It can be hard to break through to a team and you'd wonder if guys like Ian Nagle or Dave Foley might have benefitted with a move in the past year or two and then returned to Munster more experienced players.
As I said, it really all comes down to the player and each individual's circumstances. It never really crossed my mind for most of my career. Munster was home and I was happy there.
Of course, you try to do as well as you can. I used to tell my agent, John Baker, that he needed to go and look for such and such a figure – I would pick something ridiculously high and he would tell not to be mad – and he would go and talk to Garrett Fitz (Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald) and something would be worked out. Contracts were never an issue and mine was always done and dusted in no time.
We always felt we were being looked after by Munster and the IRFU and on the playing front we were just so driven in what we were trying to do. There was a real buzz, I was earning good money and it just didn't enter my head to consider going anywhere else. We knew we were building to something and when all the big and established players were staying, we just followed their lead.
But I know it wasn't all glamour and glitz for the lads trying to break through. If you were in the team and playing for Munster and Ireland then you could command a good wage.
However, I know that wasn't the case for a lot of lads and even at the height of the Celtic Tiger there were lads going back to their parents to get money. They were waiting for their break to come, but until then many of them just did not have enough money.
I'm sure it is still the same and maybe they are the guys who might find a move abroad attractive, but, of course, you need to have done something for a foreign club to be interested in you, so it can be a vicious circle.
There are a good crop of young players now trying their luck in France and England and it will be interesting to see how they get on and given the amount of superb young players being produced by the academies here, maybe that is the best route for some of them.