Feeding into a rugby transfer frenzy

With Leinster the sole province flying the Irish flag in this weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-finals, it’s natural the thoughts of supporters of other teams are already turning to next season.

There’s obviously still a Pro12 to be won, but this is the time of year when lots of rugby’s major transfer deals get announced. This week alone, we’ve seen Ulster land Charles Piutau while Mils Muliaina is swapping Connacht for Zebre. Both were announced on April 1, but nobody was fooling around.

Given Piutau has played for the All Blacks but isn’t a regular international, the reported €700,000 a year he’ll be getting at Ulster is massive. Proven internationals command big money and rightly so, but he’s not quite in that bracket yet. Should he make the New Zealand World Cup squad — and that’s very much up in the air given he’s off to Europe — it might be a different story, but at the moment, for that price, he represents a bit of a gamble for Ulster.

Some will wonder why Piutau is leaving New Zealand in the prime of his career — he’ll be 24 when he arrives in Belfast in summer 2016 — but there’s always increased movement in the aftermath of World Cups and it’s an incredible deal for him that could set his family up for life.

Munster fans must be looking on with major envy, but you’d be confident they’re doing their own research and that their hunt for players is very thorough. For the money Piutau is commanding, maybe Munster didn’t think he was worth going after. It’s hard to find a guy who will have a massive impact and change the whole environment for the better, so that’s why things can happen slower than people in Munster might like.

Agents are controlling a lot of the market now too. Rugby doesn’t have an equivalent of a football “super agent” like Jorge Mendes yet but their role is getting bigger. The Essentially and Esportif groups, for example, have worldwide offices, and the rugby world is becoming a smaller, easier place for people to do business in. It’s very much about who you know — agents are human too and if your agent gets on better with a certain club, he’s going to push you towards them.

It was different for me. I stayed with Munster my whole career, and players didn’t move around as much as they do now. When offers did come from other clubs, I generally dealt with them myself, with the exception of those from French clubs. To deal with them, you must have French-based representation; it’s a smart rule because they can control the movement of players.

Nowadays there’s more players than ever moving from club to club in France, and foreigners from around the world are attracted to the Top 14. You’d have two or three agents a week coming into Racing, pushing prospective players.

You could have 50 different players’ CVs in the mix at a given time. If a player is out of contract, it becomes like putting a property on the market — he’ll put himself out to potential buyers to see what his value is, and his success will be determined by how many bidders there are for him.

In Ireland, this process is largely done in private, but things are very different in France. There’s at least a page of rugby every day in L’Equipe and a whole broadsheet dedicated to it, Midi Olympique, that comes out every Monday and Friday. That’s a lot of newspaper pages to fill, and the club presidents are powerful businessmen who each have their own way of getting things done. Some talk very openly to the press and tell them exactly what’s going on with potential transfers, others don’t say a thing but 90% of what is speculated about comes true.

Do the journalists or the presidents themselves drive that? It’s a bit of both. Jacky Lorenzetti, our president here at Racing Metro, is a very successful businessman and that’s how he runs the place. He treats players like commodities — if he’s not getting a return he wants to move them on quickly, but if he is, he’s keen to keep them and pay them handsomely. Signing Dan Carter, for instance, was a dream of his. It was just something he wanted to do in his lifetime in rugby, to say he signed Dan Carter for his team.

The cult of the president is, of course, massive in French rugby. Lorenzetti runs his wine and property businesses from the Racing HQ; there’s 40-odd people here working exclusively for his interests outside rugby. I see him every day, he has his coffee in the clubhouse, but he isn’t hands-on with the rugby side of things at all, although you do feel his presence.

Nonetheless, he is a very discreet operator compared to someone like Mourad Boudjellal, the Toulon president, who has something interesting to say every week. Last week Toulon lost to Toulouse and he said they’d be handing back the Bouclier de Brennus trophy to the league authorities, because they weren’t good enough to be title holders! He’s obviously hoping to get a reaction from his players, but there are other times where he has really backed them publicly too.

This is all a million miles removed from the Irish setup, which has always been dictated by committees doing their work behind closed doors. In France, they have one-man committees. People can be quick to have opinions on the presidents and how they go about their business, but they’re the only ones putting their hard-earned money into the clubs, so they’re entitled to do what they want.

It’s a volatile environment here as a result, but that’s taken as a given. You don’t know what’s going to happen day-to-day or week-to-week, and an owner’s patience can be pretty short — it all depends on results. Which is exactly why Racing’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens on Sunday is being given the big-game treatment it deserves.

It’s our first time in the quarter-finals and while we have big respect for Saracens, if we let them play too much we’ll be in trouble. We have to control the football, plain and simple. All the good teams I played on concentrated on their own game rather than the opposition’s, so that’s what we’ll try to do this week. We’ve made progress in the two years since the new management came in. We’ll find out just how much progress on Sunday.

  • I want to pay my respects to Jerry Murray - who sadly passed away last week - for all did for me throughout my early and most important years in Cork Con.

I count myself lucky to have played in the amateur era, to have experienced rugby at such a great club before going on to play professionally.

I played with Jerry’s sons Niall and Jerry, both great players in their own right, and I have such fond memories of that time and his wonderful influence on my career.

Jerry Snr had no idea which way the road would take me, but he helped kick-start it — so thank you Jerry, for all the wise words every Tuesday and Thursday night.

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