David Nucifora keeps hiding behind ‘growing the game’ excuse in trying to stay amateur, but that is now approaching players-as-pawns territory
Before the Ireland rugby team run out at Cardiff Arms Park today for their opening game of the Women’s Six Nations against Wales, it might be worth remembering what players don’t get for everything they do. There is no prize money in the Women’s Six Nations, for example, nor has there ever been.
The tournament doesn’t have a title sponsor and because of historical reasons including commercial rights not being “centralised”, it means there is no jackpot for the competing nations. This is the same Six Nations that recently sold 14.3pc of itself for £365million to CVC with the promise of having “a huge impact on the Women’s Championship”.
That deal doesn’t financially come in until later this year but it doesn’t change the script for women this season. Amateur players already sacrifice aspects of their day jobs to play for their country, so, you know, why bother recognising their efforts with a gaudy fundamental like financial reward?
Remember too that the Ireland women’s players don’t get appearance fees or bonuses for playing for their country. They get what the IRFU call “a match payment” which is also described in other circles as a per diem and is understood to be a basic amount.
Compare that to their national soccer counterparts. Players with the Republic of Ireland women’s squad receive €500 per competitive international with politicians hopping on board the calls for equal pay with male international players last year. This is an obvious step but it is wildly progressive compared to rugby.
It is a completely different set-up, obviously, (the majority of the female and male international soccer players are on contracts with clubs abroad) but equality seems so far away in this regard with rugby that what should realistically be aimed for now is equity.
Our national women’s 15s team occupy a strange no-man’s land. They’re elite amateur players yet they don’t get the benefits other elite amateur players in Ireland get like male inter-county GAA players. Through state grants, male inter-county players have directly received amounts on a sliding scale of €900-€2,000+ per season dependent on conditions like how far their team play in the championship.
A female rugby player who plays in the Six Nations or a World Cup doesn’t get a state grant or any form of financial acknowledgment for potential loss of earnings for time spent training and playing for their country (besides per diems from the IRFU). Rugby Players Ireland (who represent members of Ireland women’s squad) say they are “actively pursuing” state grants for players.
Keeping the Ireland women rugby players as amateurs in an increasingly professional landscape is starting to go beyond square-peg-round-hole domain. In January 2019, England became the first national 15-a-side squad in the world to go full-time professional with 28 contracts offered to female players.
You won’t make your fortune here, the average salary for an England player was reported to be €28,000, which was nearly the same amount that a male England player earned from playing one game for his country. But the point is the players are able to fully focus on rugby. England have a functioning Premier 15s league to complement their full-time status. France have part-time contracts for their players.
Scotland currently have seven players on ‘2021 contracts’ – they work it on a case-by-case basis either through direct financial support to a player or via a partnership agreement with their place of work to allow the player time to train and compete (which is a pragmatic starting point). Ireland’s opponents today, Wales, are also amateur.
Last July, Wales rugby union chief executive, Martyn Phillips, said the sooner contracts can be given to Wales’ female players “the happier I’ll be” and added he “wouldn’t mind” if they were introduced ahead of the next World Cup.
The IRFU aren’t in the business of making – what sounded like – watery-enough commitments like Phillips gave above. The cliché goes that the IRFU were dragged kicking and screaming into professionalism when the men’s game turned pro.
When it comes to women and the prospect of professionalism, there’s barely a bead of sweat on the union brow so far away are they from even entertaining the idea. The union posted a deficit last year of €35.7 million because of the pandemic and recently made 20 non-playing staff members redundant. But the IRFU’s stance on female players and professionalism was there long before the awful effects of this pandemic.
IRFU performance director, David Nucifora, has made it clear for a few years that they want to concentrate on growing the game from the bottom up. But, as I’ve written before, that shouldn’t come at the expense of evolving the game from the top down. In a statement on the IRFU website last month, Nucifora said: “Professionalism may become a reality at some stage in the future and that is an admirable aspiration for the women’s game.”
However, it ain’t happening any time soon. “The leagues are still at very early stages across the world, and until they are in a position to support a full-time paid professional programme, that is commercially viable, talk of professionalism is really a distraction to the development that really should be a collective focus – which must be getting more girls and women to play the sport,” Nucifora added.
There seems to be less value placed on the idea that it is the women who wear the green jerseys today who could be the IRFU’s biggest meal-ticket to growing the game. Ask any Ireland player and they would jump at the chance of becoming a pro player, and imagine how that could inspire young girls seeing these players be allowed fulfil their potential completely.
As a starter, the IRFU should look at trialling part-time contracts for players should they qualify for next year’s rescheduled World Cup. Munster reportedly had an offer of more than €600,000, which was believed to be strongly supported by private investment, for South Africa’s Pieter-Steph du Toit. Imagine being able to mine even half of kind of private investment to go towards short-term contracts for our women’s team in the build-up to the World Cup. Is that idea so outlandish? Or is that kind of talk too much of a “distraction” for everyone to bear?
Because what’s being asked of amateur players in a professional landscape is set to be stretched even more. When World Rugby announced its new global tournament, WXV, it was widely lauded. A global competition in a new September/October window, well that sounds great, doesn’t it?
More tests, more competition, isn’t that what everyone wants? But how exactly does that shake down for amateur players who also have day jobs? World Rugby stated at the time that “recognising that globally women’s high-performance programmes are currently are differing levels and stages, World Rugby is committed to work in partnership with the unions to support collective ambitions”.
But what does that really mean? Will they financially reimburse players who lose out on earnings to play in this tournament? Will they financially support unions to provide full/part-time contracts for players to participate in this tournament?
These were some of the questions that the Irish Independent put to World Rugby this week. While they said they couldn’t comment on specific contracts, they sidestepped the questions and added a statement with lines that they wanted to “enhance the competitiveness of the women’s game globally.”
It’s brilliant to have grand ambitions but what about the actual support mechanisms for amateur players who’re expected to fill these grand ambitions? Take more time off work? Lose out on pay/overtime in their workplace? Of, course there’s the honour and glory but what do they get in return for their incredible commitment?
The IRFU say they haven’t got details of World Rugby’s plans for financial support around this new WXV tournament but a union spokesperson said: “We look forward to hearing the specifics of their investment”.
And all the while our amateur players do whatever it takes because they want to play for our country. But stakeholders and unions can’t have it both ways. They can’t install the fancy, elite tournament and expect or allow players to not be paid in return or financially reimbursed. Because that’s approaching players-as-pawns territory. And, really, no one wants that look.