Sunday 16 June 2019

All the world is a stage

Looks are a factor in commercial potential. With someone like Jordi, the photo shoots don't take too long

The stage is set for some of Ireland’s big stars to become top trumps in the earning stakes if the team makes it to Twickenham
The stage is set for some of Ireland’s big stars to become top trumps in the earning stakes if the team makes it to Twickenham
Jonah Lomu became a global star following his first RWC appearance.

Just try to imagine the reaction back home if Ireland were to win the World Cup. There would be bedlam. The celebrations would go on for weeks. The reception for the returning heroes would be as if JFK, the Pope and the World Cup 90 soccer stars all arrived at Dublin Airport together. Wherever they went, the triumphant players would be mobbed like The Beatles.

The whole team would become instant sporting immortals. The star men would be deified. Captain Paul O'Connell would be a shoo-in for Taoiseach if he wanted to run for office. Think how Jack Charlton's footballers were idolised - and many still are - and they only reached the last eight at Italia 90.

At this remove, you might think, "ah, rugby's nowhere near as big as soccer, most people wouldn't get that carried away". But the Irish public are very quick to get behind a success story. People who might not have known the difference between a scrum and a lineout during the group stages will be cheering the team on from the rafters if they reach the semi-finals. Do Ireland proud on the biggest stage and the whole country - North and south in rugby's case - will show their appreciation.

Winning the World Cup is unlikely, but it's certainly not a pipe dream; after all, Ireland are ranked No 2 in the world. And Ireland can create a major stir without actually winning the competition. Reaching the semi-finals for the first time would constitute a triumph in the eyes of most, and would send the country crazy.

That would transform the standing and profile of the players involved, and it would also have a tangible financial benefit.

"Their on-field value would soar if they have played, and played well, in a successful team," explains agent Niall Woods, a former Ireland wing whose stable of young talent includes World Cup-bound Jordi Murphy and his injured Leinster colleague, Marty Moore, who didn't make it in the end.

Woods maintains that players "could earn multiples of what they're on - double or triple their salary" if they play well at the World Cup.

"Then there's off-field earnings. If Ireland get to the semi-finals, the profile of the players will rocket, and the more marketable ones will certainly benefit."

Woods explains that, however well Ireland do, there would be huge disparity in off-field commercial potential across the team, based on such factors as public profile, playing position ("Generally backs are more marketable than forwards"), looks ("with someone like Jordi, the photo shoots don't tend to take too long"), willingness to embrace marketing opportunities and media commitments, as well as social media activity.

The agent reckons that, save for a handful of superstar 'brands' such as Brian O'Driscoll (still, despite having retired 12 months ago), Paul O'Connell and Johnny Sexton, off-field earnings remain "miniscule" compared to their salaries.

"The sponsorship pool in Ireland is so small," says Woods. "And it's pretty much sewn up by a small number of players."

However, with O'Connell retiring from international duty at the end of the World Cup and moving to France, and the potential for the current crop to supplant O'Driscoll's deeds in the collective public memory, there could soon be opportunities at the top end of the market. A small number of icons dominate the market now; by November, we could have new icons.

"If companies and brands are looking for an ambassador, they might be toying with GAA players - the Ireland soccer players don't live here, so they are of less interest - but if players play well at the World Cup, they can catch the eye and jump the queue," says Woods. "There could be opportunities across the water if they do really well.

"But if you want the big sponsorship deals, you have to interact with the media, you have you go to events and openings - and be photographed in society pages; keeping up your Twitter profile is very important. And not every player wants to do these things.

"Of course, players can't be thinking about these things now. They have to concentrate on getting in the team and playing well, and if any commercial opportunities come of it, it's a bonus."

Fellow player representative Dave McHugh, whose charges include the Kearney brothers and Ian Madigan, is adamant that players will not be distracted by thoughts of megabucks deals. "A good World Cup would add to the value of players on the international market, no question about that, but here in Ireland we have one of the best player welfare systems in the world," he says. "I'm not lining players up for moves to France.

"Off the field, there will be a natural uplift in potential commercial earnings if they are successful, but there's probably only 10 high-profile guys in the team.

"We'd all love the fairytale - the dream is that one of my guys scores the winning try in the World Cup final, and all the players become legends. Obviously, the profile of the player that gets the winning try would rocket, and his earning potential would rocket, but whoever it is would still need to plan for a future after rugby. It's not like soccer - players still need to work when they retire."

In Ireland it's hard to predict the effect of a successful Rugby World Cup because, frankly, we've never had one. In seven previous tournaments, Ireland have never advanced beyond quarter-finals. A World Cup is an arena where heroes are forged, but you have to do something heroic. The closest Ireland have come to World Cup heroism is Gordon Hamilton's memorable late try against the Aussies at Lansdowne Road in the classic 91 last-eight clash - which was trumped by the Wallabies even later winning try.

And Hamilton's name did not stay up in lights for long. The Ulster flanker played only one more Test after that. His Wikipedia entry is just 92 words long.

In this internet era, we won't see another Jonah Lomu. The All-Black wing went to the 1995 World Cup virtually unknown on this side of the equator: he had won just two caps. Within a month, he was rugby's first global superstar, with an appeal that transcended the oval-ball code.

A modern-day Lomu would have been already spotted by the rugby cognoscenti, playing Super Rugby or in the Championship, with footage of his feats on TV and the internet.

However, players can still come in under the radar and make a splash: most of the Argentina squad who finished third in 2007 ended up at European clubs on big money. In the same year, the USA's Takudzwa Ngwenya, who had been playing for Dallas Athletic Rugby Club, scored a dazzling try against champions-in-waiting South Africa. His exploits earned him a lucrative contract with Biarritz; eight years on, he is still there. There is certainly scope for a player from one of the 'minnows' to do something similar this time around.

Closer to home, Conor Murray was still on a €20,000-a-year academy contract with Munster - yet to make a Heineken Cup appearance - when he was sensationally picked for the 2011 World Cup squad ahead of clubmate Tomas O'Leary; by the end of that tournament, he was Ireland's starting scrum-half. His basic retainer for the World Cup was worth more than his annual salary; his next contract, signed with the Union shortly after his return from New Zealand, was worth in excess of €150,000 a year.

None of the Ireland squad will be coming from so far left field this time, but a strong World Cup can still catapult a player from the fringes of public consciousness to household name status, or turn the big stars into superstars - with stratospheric earning potential.

Take Jonny Wilkinson: prior to the 2003 World Cup, he was already a major figure, chief points-scorer and string-puller in an all-conquering England team; dropping the last-gasp goal that won the Webb Ellis Trophy, though, transformed him into an icon. His fame spiralled way beyond rugby circles, beyond even sporting circles.

He guarded his privacy, turning down a £1m offer to pose for Hello!, but he still cashed in: his pre-World Cup deal with Adidas was worth £250,000; after it, he signed a £2m contract. Other lucrative advertising campaigns included Gillette, Hackett and Guinness.

His team-mates also made big money: Lawrence Dallaglio fronted a McDonald's campaign. Their contract values shot up. The older ones soon had testimonial campaigns that netted seven-figure sums. Many of the squad became pundits or picked up work in reality TV or were fast-tracked into coaching roles.

Woods warns that "in pro sport, you're quickly forgotten", and the Ireland players would certainly be well advised to quickly make the most of any commercial opportunities that come their way on the back off a good World Cup.

But if they win it, they won't fade into obscurity any time soon.

Irish Independent

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