Agent of change
WHEN Rob Kearney soared to the 2009 Grand Slam for Ireland and in South Africa for the British & Irish Lions, Dave McHugh soared with him.
When the full-back was hit hard by a serious knee injury that wrecked most of the 2010-2011 season, McHugh was there to support him. He was there again on Sunday when Ireland fell so agonisingly to England.
The rugby agent is the middle man, the conduit, the go-between, "the buffer" between the player and the outside commercial world.l
And for McHugh, one of two partners at Lineup Sports Media Entertainment, who formerly worked as operations manager at Leinster, it is the ideal job.
"When I felt I had reached the end of my time at Leinster, director of rugby Paul McNaughton became a mentor to me. He was my sounding board," said McHugh.
"He said to me: 'What are you good at?'
"I said: 'I am good at managing players'.
"He said: 'What would you like to do?'
"I said: 'I am interested in the sponsorship and commercial side of sport'."
The fog slowly lifted. McHugh wanted to create a sports marketing entity with a focus on rugby and a player management model with a difference.
"Felipe Contepomi once told me 'you only need an agent when you need a job'," issued McHugh.
"Other than that, you need someone to manage you, someone to assist you with everything that happens off the field so that you can concentrate completely on what happens on it."
It was the second year into Michael Cheika's five-year reign at Leinster in 2006 when McHugh, through the advice of McNaughton, set up Tri-line Sports with Will Green, the former Leinster, London Wasps and England prop.
"We felt that the existing agency model in Ireland back then offered a certain level of service. We wanted to do more, be more than that," he said.
"What is the perception of an agent? The perception is of somebody who negotiates an employment contract and takes a fee for that service.
"There are 38 people out there representing rugby players in Ireland. There isn't a right or wrong way to be an agent. Everybody has a different style.
"My style is 'you can do a better job when you know your client better'. I have a very close relationship with all my clients."
The company was set up to match brands to sports in a similar way it was done in England. It was very different to the Irish system. McHugh and Green wanted to bring a different approach to how players should behave around sponsors, how much value they added.
"I was lucky enough that I got the support of a number of senior players at the time – Leo Cullen, Malcolm O'Kelly, Felipe Contepomi, Girvan Dempsey, Chris Whitaker – not necessarily as their agent.
"I instantly became the agent to Rob Kearney, Girvan, Cian Healy, Will Green, Mal. I started to explore their worlds outside the contract to play rugby.
"I started working with players and doing what I was good at, specifically managing every aspect of their working life from contract, to commercial to media.
"Essentially, I am like a mini-IRUPA in many respects in terms of mentoring, exploration of potential further education, linking players to brands in an area where they would like to end up in the long run in their life after rugby.
"There are many different types of agents. There is the father-figure John Baker, the hard-negotiator Fintan Drury. There are the ex-players like Frankie Sheahan, Niall Woods, Ryan Constable.
"Then, there is my model. Mine is more the player-management model where we emphasise a lot more than just the contracts.
"It could be anything – education, commercial, media, communications, charitable.
"In 2011, I focused all my energies on Line Up, a rebrand of Tri-line Sports, in a partnership with Maeve Buckley, the former chief executive of Platinum One Ireland with Fintan Drury."
There was a time when all the player wanted was for his agent "to show me the money". This is no longer the case.
"In the glory days, it was all about how much money you could make for your client. That philosophy doesn't change. But the financial landscape has.
"Personally, there are three elements to recruiting players. The first, the most important factor, is relationship. The second is reputation. The third is fit.
"There has to be a good relationship there to get the most out of the relationship. You have to understand the individual, where they fit, what their strengths and weaknesses are.
"Five years ago, it was all about getting deals. Now, there isn't the same money around. You have to create more strategic partnerships.
"Take rugby. There are only five or six commercial players in the game of which I am lucky enough to have one – Rob Kearney. The next big star on-field is not necessarily the next big star off-field, but this is 90 per cent of the equation.
"Take Mike Ross. He is an essential part of the on-field jigsaw, bedrock of the team. He is also highly intelligent, highly qualified, a good writer and a genius when it comes to technology. We've done things with Samsung, The Herald, EA Sports which all fit towards Mike's plan of being involved with brands that might be in an area where he sees a post-rugby career.
"It is absolutely paramount that you get as much money as possible from contract negotiations. But, what additional value do you offer?
"Whether it is doing commercial deals, managing approaches, contractual related, education related, charity related, I take on that role.
"None of this matters if an athlete does not perform on-field. That is their responsibility and I have mine. That is what makes this type of partnership work."