Friday 24 November 2017

Tony Ward: I hope modern pros realise how lucky they are

Lions' €80,000-a-man bonanza a far cry from days of paying for your own leave and allowances that didn't cover cost of a call home

Warren Gatland's Lions side are said to be the highest-paid in history. Picture: PA
Warren Gatland's Lions side are said to be the highest-paid in history. Picture: PA
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Warren Gatland's 2017 tourists are apparently set to become the highest-paid Lions in history.

Compared to the immorality of football remuneration, rugby is still in the pauper's place, yet since the onset of professionalism back in 1995, being selected for the Lions has been pretty good for your bank balance as well as your CV.

I know I speak for many from my era when I say the greatest appeal of professionalism would have been the opportunity to maximise my God-given potential.

I am envious of the modern players, but not begrudging. I'm sure they appreciate just how lucky they are. Imagine being paid for doing what is your hobby, and certainly at the start of your careers, your obsession in life.

There are loads of land-mines to negotiate, but being paid for your passion before 'real work' even begins has irresistible appeal. I hope these players appreciate how lucky they are.

That is the context as details emerge of the financial carrot dangling in front of next year's Lions.

To put it in perspective, the Lions of the amateur era got nothing in terms of compensation for lost earnings, or expenses.

Problem

You were picked for the tour and if you accepted, work leave was your problem.

If you were in the public service the prestige of employee selection was compensated through paid leave of absence, but for those in the private sector, provided you turned up for the plane, the organisers didn't give a stuff.

There was a daily allowance, which needless to say was derisory. Put seven days together and you might just about have enough to pay for your weekend call to loved ones back home.

You probably think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not.

And unlike today, where players fly business class, back then travel arrangements were basic and penny-pinching.

At a time when the stars who attracted bumper crowds were paid nothing, player welfare mattered not a whit.

On the last Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005, the players received a little over €25,000 for their endeavours. It was €45,000 in South Africa in '09 and €55,000 in Australia four years ago, not including the series winning bonus.

For 2017, the players will receive over €80,000 for being on board. Any win bonuses will be hard-won in New Zealand, but bear in mind that this is now a five-week, ten-match tour, when in days of old you might have had twice as many games - and with boat travel, you might have been away for six months.

The Lions is "one of the biggest brands in world rugby", according to the tourists' CEO Johnny Feehan - and he's right. New Zealand v the Lions is now the biggest box office in the game, with only the World Cup final on a similar plane.

Closer to home, on Tuesday, Munster unveiled their new High Performance Centre at the University of Limerick.

As a graduate of the Plassey campus I may be accused of bias, but if there is a better equipped, better located centre of sports science and training excellence worldwide, then it is competing as an 'Eighth Wonder'.

Having all the players training under one roof, as opposed to split between Cork and Limerick, will be a huge improvement, particularly when the facilities are so impressive.

Of course, Munster did win two Heineken Cups under their old model, but that success was despite the Limerick/Cork split and most certainly not because of it.

Rightly or wrongly, Munster chief executive Garret Fitzgerald ships a degree of flak in other areas, but full credit to him along with UL director of sport Dave Mahedy for seeing this essential development through.

Meanwhile, today and tomorrow at Stradbrook, home of Blackrock College RFC, a very special underage event is taking place: 18 teams from Ireland, the UK, France, South Africa and Georgia are competing in an U-14s Sevens tournament.

Underprivileged

Two of the visiting teams hail from extremely underprivileged backgrounds.

Samachablo U-14s come from an area in Georgia riddled with strife and ethnic cleansing.

Former Georgian international Giorgi Kacharava, captain of top club side Lelo, dedicates his time to running a development programme for children from the refugee camps in Samachablo, teaching and developing these kids through the values of rugby.

Diepsloot is one of the poorest and most densely populated townships in Johannesburg, and out of there, through the equally incredible work of Trevor van den Berg comes the Vikings Invitation team.

If you are anywhere near Blackrock today please give Stradbrook a visit. You won't be disappointed.

Irish Independent

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