Sport Rugby

Sunday 25 February 2018

George Hook: I will shed no tears at loss of overpaid and underperforming stars

George Hook

George Hook

Rugby, with its origins deep in the middle class and private schools, has always had odd relationship with professionalism.

Unlike soccer, where the best players have for 90 years plied their trade in England, leaving school at 16 to take a chance for fame and fortune, Irish rugby players in the main have been well-educated young men much like their fathers and grandfathers who had played the game for fun.

The childish affectation for nicknames like Axel, Darce and Drico is a throwback to an age when prop forwards were fat, full-backs caught and kicked and only centres made head-on tackles.

The result is that fans find it difficult to comprehend that these men might be motivated by the prospect of fortune as well as fame. So too it is unimaginable that rugby types would descend to cheating like boxers punching below the belt, athletes taking drugs or soccer players diving in the penalty area.

The reality is that the average elite rugby player is a hard-bitten pro who, aided by an agent, is focused on getting the best possible financial deal for the short life at the top of his sport. His loyalty is quite correctly to his future rather than a jersey or a flag. Sean O'Brien put it rather well when he said, "I will think about it, but I suppose I will be selfish" -- common sense from a common man.

The latest news is that Jamie Heaslip has been sounding out the prospects in France and it has raised fears of an exodus of Ireland's best players to foreign fields in search of filthy lucre. The question is, should we be worried?

The latest accounts from the IRFU show a poor financial position, and former liquidator, now honorary treasurer Tom Grace will be well aware that rugby, like any other business, will have to cut its wage bill to its measure to remain competitive in a time of declining revenues.

Rugby players in Ireland cannot be immune to the financial pressures that beset the rest of the nation's workforce.

Many people will find it surprising that Heaslip is Ireland's highest-paid player. A new three-year contract could cost the IRFU over €1m -- a lot of money for a player deemed surplus to Test requirements by the Lions and for whom there is a more than adequate replacement in Sean O'Brien.

Heaslip was the worst-performing No 8 off the back of the scrum in the Six Nations. One salivates at the prospect of O'Brien taking the ball off attacking scrums.

It would be instructive to take a straw poll of the terraces; who should stay, Heaslip or O'Brien?

A sum of €1m could keep outstanding young talent like Jordi Murphy and Dominic Ryan at home. Rarely in its history has Ireland had a shortage of back-rows. A glance over the team sheets of the last 60 years shows that the selection problems have come elsewhere and the back-row has been an embarrassment of riches.

Like hookers, back-rows come in all shapes and sizes and the old certain physical differences between No 6, 7 and 8 are no more.

Heaslip has had a charmed life in international rugby. He was an astonishing choice as captain by Declan Kidney in a snub to Brian O'Driscoll; his performances have rarely been subjected to detailed analysis because the inside track from the camp suggests that his 'stats' are outstanding; and most importantly he has never delivered on the promise that made him one of the best No 8s at U-21 level in the world.

There is an added difficulty for the IRFU negotiators. The game in the northern hemisphere is in flux and the old certainties of European and Celtic competition may be no more. The latest move by the Welsh regions to defy the WRU could threaten the very existence of the Six Nations.

Wise heads at the Irish Union will be wary of committing to million-dollar deals at this time.

RUMOUR

Heaslip and his agent, however, may be cheered at the news of the change in the ownership of London Irish. Rumour has it that there is money in the bank to buy Irish players in an attempt to get the club back to its roots and in touch with the million-strong Irish community that has largely deserted the Madejski Stadium.

An exodus of players spells bad news for Connacht. A revised budget would mean that the best players gravitate to the major teams. Robbie Henshaw is a case in point, and the young man should look to his future rather than the colour of his shirt.

It would not be bad for Irish rugby if Connacht became a true development team filled with promising Irish-qualified players and coached by an Irishman. There is a contradiction between the concept of development and the recruitment of a Scottish fly-half (Dan Parks) nearing retirement.

Heaslip leaving Ireland would not be a disaster. The game will recover and it may be the focusing of minds of performance versus cost. The old adage of a fair day's pay for a fair day's work holds true.

If I hear the phrase top-up payments for players I will be as angry as James Reilly, but I will not shed a tear at the loss of underperforming, overpaid players.

Irish Independent

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