Sport Rugby

Monday 24 July 2017

Hard Ball

Fintan Drury represents a new breed of player agents the IRFU fear as their cosy world of contract negotiations begins to be torn apart by ‘the soccer element’

David Kelly

David Kelly

The arrival of Fintan Drury into the once cosy, parochial world of Irish rugby has left its polite denizens more shaken and stirred than their gin and tonics.

Where once the IRFU sought to conduct their contract negotiations on their terms and at their pace, at all times assuming the status of something akin to a 19th century benevolent landlord, Drury's tactics have launched a wrecking ball at the comfy establishment.

And the lords of IRFU are not happy. Chief executive Philip Browne has fulminated publicly at the prospect of "agents" -- we noted how he spat the word out earlier this month -- taking money out of the sport.

Inside IRFU walls, treasurer Tom Grace and director of human resources Maurice Dowling are digging their heels in as Drury seeks to negotiate the best possible deal available for his players, Jamie Heaslip and Jonny Sexton.

Outside IRFU walls, much of the negotiations are being conducted via the media -- linen is being washed in the full glare of the public. This the IRFU do not like.

Tricks

And even some of the existing rugby agents are feeling a tad miffed at the brusque arrival of a new kid on the block -- even if this particular new kid possesses some of the oldest and most effective tricks in the business.

It doesn't please some people that their future career direction remains in the gift of someone pithily described by a veteran Irish rugby observer as "the soccer element".

It is interesting to recall Browne's comments of earlier this month as he reacted to the ongoing negotiations surrounding new contracts for Heaslip and Sexton.

"As the game develops, so the role of agents has developed," said Browne. "I've been at this for 15 years and every single year at this time of year there is a feeding frenzy from the media, partly, I would imagine, prompted by some agents who would possibly like to see the heat and the pressure being ratcheted up on the union.

"The bottom line is we've been in discussions with every player that we need to be in discussion with. They know where we stand. We can't compete with some of the money being bandied around in France and we have no intention of competing."

Of course, money is a filthy word in Irish rugby -- ever since the IRFU failed miserably to stem the tide firstly of professionalism in 1995, then the flight of many of its leading lights to a wealthier England in the ensuing years.

Having belatedly repatriated its internationals, the IRFU developed a widely admired system whereby players were centrally contracted and carefully managed -- Irish rugby's remarkable growth since 2000 bears witness to the prudence of this policy.

There were occasional blips yet, despite all the skirt-raising from O'Driscoll on 'The Late Late Show' or parading in Biarritz, or Ronan O'Gara's rumoured link to the Miami Dolphins, the system held sway.

The IRFU never completely covered themselves in glory either; fuelled by a strange mixture of supremacy and paranoia at their overwhelming success in promulgating this system, they made some remarkable errors.

Their repeated tactics of allowing contracts to wither away to within an inch of their shelf life smacked of smug superiority -- it was a privilege to play for one's country and no price could match that, they thought.

It cost them money too. One recalls a trio of Irish players, whose contracts were winding down in familiar fashion, being reported in a Sunday newspaper as being spotted visiting English clubs.

Within days, they had put pen to paper in IRFU offices; two of the trio were pleasantly surprised to see that they had earned about €50,000 extra thanks to a few lines in a paper.

It didn't escape the IRFU's attention that these lines were probably nudged into being by the players' agent(s).

The collapse of the Celtic Tiger and IRFU commitments to an expensive stadium they failed miserably to fill last November has utterly transformed the landscape -- the IRFU money men had no hesitation in scything some senior players' wages by between 30pc and 50pc last summer.

A few years back, they were politely offered a proposal which might aid their ability to conduct player negotiations; it is still being used as a doorstep within the bowels of Lansdowne Road.

Convenient

Their tactics seem more convenient to them now, however, especially in these financially strictured times. Now they have no hesitation in sitting on their hands as "the soccer element" play hardball with two of their primary young assets.

"It's funny how everybody criticises the agents and nobody criticises the IRFU," said another agent. They complain about money being taken out of the game but their own negotiating tactics, or lack of, have cost them so much money in the last 10 years."

Still, one suspects that the union would be not entirely unhappy if one of either Heaslip or Sexton left.

That may suit union and agent but would it suit the player? Certainly one can imagine Heaslip settling anywhere in the world, but would Sexton be utterly comfortable plying his trade in a foreign culture?

It's a fine line and one blurred by those new arrivals into the industry.

One established agent says he is getting phone calls that begin with a hurried: "How much money can you get for me?"

Yet, apart from a handful of stars like O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Heaslip and Sexton, there aren't swag bags of cash swimming about the place.

Which is perhaps why Drury is getting it in the neck from all sides.

"If one person digs in their heels, then that's not negotiation in my book," said one established agent. "Negotiations shouldn't involve truths that are not truths, or they shouldn't involve bluffs.

"To be honest, I'm gobsmacked that somebody like Fintan Drury would even think of getting into this business. But then I'm gobsmacked that somebody like Niall Woods would be thinking of getting into this business."

Woods, former chairman of the Irish Players' Union for a decade, kicks off his new sports management agency -- Navy Blue Enterprises -- this Monday.

He hails from the era of the first flight of Irish players to England, when renowned agent John Baker's friendship with Eric Miller's father arguably kickstarted the industry.

Woods would like to think that there's more to the rugby agent than merely the 'Jerry Maguire' connotation. He'd been approached before but had unfinished work with IRUPA.

"I felt now the time was right for a change," explained the former Ireland wing. "I've spent 10 years working in the best interests of the player. Of course, the primary point is the negotiation of a contract with the club or union.

"But I know the ups and downs of being a player and know the importance of dealing with a player for the other 364 days of the year, whether that's dealing with sponsors and media.

"I've been told I'll be a great success but that doesn't mean it will just happen. But I know I can talk to players, I have a relationship with all the CEOs and team managers or coaches in Ireland and England and I can build a rapport with players."

Another agent told us that if he charged solicitors' rates for all the extra work done on behalf of some of his clients -- from mortgages to car advice, personal finance to personal furnishing -- "I'd be calling you from Sandy Lane in Barbados."

But is there enough room for all of the agents? And can a so-called "soccer element" exist within rugby circles -- and at rugby prices, with perhaps only a handful of players able to earn in a year what Kolo Toure earns in a week?

We may find out soon enough.

Irish Independent

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