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Irish rugby’s player contract model looking more attractive by the day as English clubs struggle

With London Irish the latest victim of financial issues, and players seeing their earning options narrow, world rugby is looking enviously in our direction

The parlous finances of several clubs in the English Premiership claimed a third victim this week in London Irish, who have followed Worcester Warriors and Wasps into dissolution or suspension from the league. A consortium led by US investor NUE Equity, cast in the role of saviour, never made it to centre stage. The English RFU extinguished the lights on Tuesday afternoon.

The numbers would make an Adam’s apple bob violently trying to swallow the scale of Irish’s financial issues – £30 million in debt with an annual bill of between £4 million and £6 million. London Irish owner Mick Crossan – who has looked to sell the club he bought and financially underwrote since 2013 in recent years and who was, anecdotally, prepared to write off the debt – cut a disappointed and frustrated figure in the tone of his open letter on the club’s website.

The travesty is not the balance sheet but the human cost: players, coaches and staff who have been marooned at a time when there is little prospect for all but a handful of being able to move to another club.

It’s not just English rugby that is facing a challenging time financially. The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) has had to cut back funding to its professional teams, manifested in 44 players leaving the Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets and Dragons during the summer. Scottish rugby made an operating loss of £5.5 million last year, despite six of the seven matches at Murrayfield being sold out.


It is reflected too in the downsizing of squads, commonplace in recent times and a situation that is applicable to the Irish provinces as there are fewer opportunities for fringe players to get game time given a revised fixture schedule in the United Rugby Championship (URC), where there is minimal overlap with Test matches.

Throw in the fact that there is a glut of players, young and old, looking for new employment and it creates an environment where there is a great deal less scope when it comes to earning potential and choice of country to play in. For many who ply their trade in the English Championship, the Pro D2 or below, it is a case of play to live, not to save.

Ireland’s centrally contracted system has long been the envy of world rugby as a workable and progressive environment that enables the provinces and international team to flourish in their respective competitions. A familiar refrain from the most envious onlookers from outside the country is that, for example, Leinster have a much bigger budget than many of their rivals.

Let’s crunch some specific numbers. The standard Academy contract is €8,000 and, under the new collective agreement negotiated between Rugby Players Ireland (RPI) and the IRFU, there are no longer development contracts; they fall under the umbrella heading of a senior contract, which starts at €15,000-€20,000 up to €350,000 for the top-end provincial contract.

A younger player on a senior provincial contract can earn from €80,000 to €100,000 while a regular provincial player who hasn’t played international rugby will be on somewhere between €100,000 to €150,000. National central contracts – or “IRFU contracts” to give them their old tagline – can range from €500,000 to €600,000 with an upper ceiling of roughly €700,000 for a select vestry.

It’s not just the bottom line that is attractive for players who ply a career in Ireland – a significant tax break at the end of a player’s career is another incentive – but the welfare aspect of Irish player contracts in which Rugby Players Ireland (RPI) and its previous incarnation, the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association (IRUPA) played a pivotal role.

The first Irish rugby contracts borrowed from a standard employment one but much longer at 37 pages and full of dense legal text because they had to cover areas particular to professional rugby such as the IRFU commercial programme, how that works, anti-doping, player warranties and obligations, and the player’s own personal sponsorship arrangements.

Peter McKenna, the former Leinster and Ireland fullback, a non-executive director with RPI and a partner in the law firm McKenna Durcan, was one of the founding members of IRUPA and has played an integral role in the evolution of contracts for professional players in Ireland.

He offered an overview of that progression. “When professional rugby started in 1995/1996 everyone involved was straying into a new era and no one fully understood what that really looked like. It was employment law that crossed over with contract law and intellectual property law with some anti-doping/sports law thrown in.

“The first player contract did its best to cover off the main areas. As things got a bit more commercial, there became tension [relating to] what can the IRFU do and what can the player do. Within that area of grey that existed in contracts, there was conflict from time to time.

“What they decided to do in and around 2006, 2007 was to go back to the contract and start from scratch almost. There was a new contract introduced. It was very comprehensive, negotiated with Rugby Players Ireland [known as IRUPA at the time]. The contract was very much between the player and the IRFU, but IRUPA was involved in negotiating the standard terms.

“The terms that would have been applicable to all players were in the body of the contract, and a schedule or appendix covered the terms that would have been particular to that player. The schedule collected the player’s name, address, player bank account details, emergency contact details, what their pay was, etc because IRUPA wouldn’t negotiate that.

“IRUPA negotiated on behalf of the players on issues that affected all players. But when it came to the player’s own individual situation, that’s when the agent or a parent of the player would step in. General match fees and win bonuses that applied to all players would be negotiated between IRUPA and the IRFU.”

The next milestone was a collective bargaining agreement negotiated between RPI and the IRFU which covered “collective dispute mechanisms, player obligations, the commercial programme, anti-doping, annual leave, sick pay, the ability of the IRFU to terminate a player’s contract, various applicable policies such as social media policy, the code of conduct, and so on”, McKenna explained.

“The collective player obligations are set out in this document and apply to all players, Academy, Sevens and senior contracts in men’s and women’s rugby. The player contract is now much shorter – eight pages that include a three-page appendix capturing their personal details – and we have agreed a standard contract for each type of player – Academy, Sevens, 15s. They are all contracted to the IRFU and are assigned to a team, Munster, Leinster, National Sevens etc.

“What we have now is a far simpler and more straightforward document. The contract refers to the collective bargaining agreement and acknowledges that it forms part of the player’s terms and conditions.”

All player contracts are fixed-term contracts without the ability to terminate on notice. The IRFU has a limited ability to terminate, such as where the player has been sick or injured for so long that the player has exhausted all their entitlements, and is still not available, or has been found guilty of gross misconduct. There are no termination-without-cause provisions.

McKenna said that the IRFU “have not been quick to terminate. They have been good the way they have gone about it with the players. If they [players] finish up their contract, and are retiring, they have a year to get everything right about themselves medically afterwards.

“That is a nice part, if they [players] have to go and get surgery done, be it dental work or an operation to fix an ongoing injury, they have the ability to do that. Within the agreement, RPI would have agreed the match fees and the win bonuses for the teams in the various competitions; that would be scheduled to the collective bargaining agreement as well. It’s all in one place.”

There is a framework for settling disputes and there have been some, but McKenna pointed out that Kevin Potts and his predecessor Philip Browne have been open and fair and that “channels of communication between the RPI and the IRFU have matured and developed over the last number of years in a very positive way”.

Cheslin Kolbe’s recent parting from Toulon is a reminder that player contracts outside Ireland can be less secure, with three or six months’ notice of termination clauses at some English clubs. If a player wants to leave his contract early, as is the case with Kolbe, then a club – Toulon in this case – is entitled to compensation from his new employers. There is no set formula – just whatever agreement is reached.

There has been one upside, from an Irish rugby perspective, of the squeezed opportunities to make a career in professional rugby and that is a stronger All-Ireland League (AIL). Several former pros have returned to Ireland and, as this year’s Division 1A finale demonstrated, the standard of fare has risen appreciably.

That work/play model is likely to become even more popular in the short term if the player market outside of Ireland continues to be dogged by financial issues, especially in England. For now that imbalance in numbers between players and contracts makes eking out a career in professional rugby much more fraught in the short term.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer