By Brendan O’Brien
The drain of southern hemisphere stars to lucrative European contracts may be keeping the game’s administrators awake at night but Felipe Contepomi believes those taking the coin can sleep easy with their decisions.
Lima Sopoaga, who if fit will likely face Contepomi’s Leinster side tomorrow in a Heineken Champions Cup opener at the RDS, is among the recent trickle of star names still in their 20s to swap the short-term hit of Test glory for longer-term financial security.
Sopoaga, who played 18 times for the All Blacks, made the decision to join the Gallagher Premiership side earlier this year and is rumoured to be on a deal worth north of £500,000 (€572,418) per annum at the Ricoh Arena.
Charles Piutau, formerly of Ulster, is believed to be tipping the £1m (€1.14m) mark at Bristol, where Contepomi began his own European odyssey after leaving Club Newman back in 2000.
Steven Luatua, Malakai Fekitoa, Aaron Cruden and Julian Savea have all taken similar paths.
Sopoaga has been up front in explaining his thinking. Players are starting to “wise up a bit,” he explained last month. The realisation this is a business and a cut-throat one that can be shut off to them in the blink of an eye has hit home.
“For a lot of guys like myself, who come from big families, from low socio-economic backgrounds, the chance to change your family’s life is pretty overwhelming,” he explained.
“It’s not something you should take lightly and sometimes the jersey is not enough for a better life. It is special, the experiences you have are pretty surreal, but down the track those things don’t pay for a roof over your head.”
More will take the same route, he predicted.
“I don’t know if it’s a statement but there is still in this game some other parts and not only the money that brings you to places,” said Contepomi. “Sometimes it’s the project, the club you’re going to. Sometimes you stay because of what’s at stake, because playing for your country is bigger.
“Now, I don’t see it as a bad thing if someone comes out and says, ‘I’m coming for the money’ because it’s his decision and we’re not there to judge these decisions. It’s his life, his career, and his decision and you have to respect it. I don’t see it as a bad thing.”
The rugby landscape was very different when Contepomi made the switch.
Wasps were still playing their home games at Loftus Road, home of Queens Park Rangers, Leinster’s players were getting changed out of the boot of their cars and nobody could dream of the £700,000 (€801,300) a year Wasps were said to have paid Kurtley Beale recently.
“I always believe in opportunities and you prepare yourself for when an opportunity comes to take it,” said the Leinster assistant coach.
“Obviously at that time when I played in Ireland, England, and France, we didn’t have professional rugby in Argentina.
“Definitely for me it was much easier, the decision to be made, because if I wanted to get better and be a better rugby player, I needed to leave Argentina. Now probably it would be different and I don’t know would be my answer.
“It’s easy to talk of things you don’t have to decide, the tough thing is what to do when you have to make decisions. Definitely there would be a lot of things instead — your professional career, the money, because it’s a professional sport — which club are you going to, the project.
“That’s how I believe opportunities have to be evaluated.”
Wasps’ recent habit of acquiring expensive personnel — they had the highest wage bill in England last year — is very different to Leinster’s modus operandi of filtering homegrown talent up through the schools system and academy.
Linking both is an ability to play some eye-catching rugby even if Wasps approach the European opener on the back of a dispiriting loss at home to Gloucester at the weekend when old boy Danny Cipriani did so much of the damage.
“They have got a really individual brilliance,” said Contepomi. “They have world-class players all over the team and they are a threat. They enjoy and they know how to play this competition and for sure they didn’t have the best game at the weekend. They lost and they will be coming to make a statement and to make a good performance.”