Steering his rugby charges in the right direction

It’s as if he’s always been the ideal backup to the stars.

Well before Simon Keogh sat alongside IRUPA chairman Rob Kearney in his own role as full-time operations manager and head legal advisor to the players union, he was often cover to Kearney and the rest of the most talented backline in European club rugby.

Only this past week Kearney and Jamie Heaslip found themselves reflecting on the similarities between today’s showdown against Bath and another nerve-tingling European Cup quarter-final from six years ago. So pivotal was Leinster’s 6-5 win over Harlequins in The Stoop that a photograph from it prominently features on the wall where those game management meetings take place.

If that battle occupies a special place in Leinster rugby, it takes up a more notorious one in that of Harlequins and the sport itself.

Keogh was uniquely positioned for Bloodgate.

He was one of Leinster’s replacements that day. Keogh was an ideal substitute in many ways, being able to play not only scrum half, but with his pace, on the wing as well. That versatility was why he made the matchday 22 for the subsequent semi-final win over Munster in Croke Park and then the final in Murrayfield which would crown his first year back with his home province.

Where’d he returned from? Harlequins. For five years he’d played for the London club.

He’d loved it over there, just as the home crowd loved him: in all he’d score more than 40 tries for them in 133 appearances, including a last-minute try to win the 2004 European Challenge Cup in his first season there. Yet there was no doubting who the biggest figure at the club was in Keogh’s last three years there. Dean Richards, later deemed to be “the directorial mind” behind Bloodgate, was director of rugby and everything else in the Stoop.

Keogh liked him, is glad he’s back from his three-year suspension, coaching Newcastle in the Premiership. Maybe some of the man’s methods were unconventional and even intimidating to some younger players but Keogh found them rather ingenious, even endearing.

“There was this player he’d have told ‘You’re too shy, you need to be more vocal, you need to come out of yourself.’ When it came to our end-of-season reviews, the same player walked in and there was Dean, John Kingston and our coach Andy Friend. What the player didn’t know was before he came in, Richards had told the others to ignore the guy.

“So the guy comes in and John’s reading The Racing Post while Dean and Andy are talking away to one another, completely ignoring your man. John says, ‘Hey lads, did you see whose running in the 2.30 in Aintree?!’ The two lads: ‘Oh yeah, that looks a good one!’

“They keep this up for a couple of minutes and your man is just sitting there, timidly, until Dean says, ‘This is exactly our problem with you! You need to be more assertive!’

“He’d challenge us all. He could have sweets on the table, invite me in, I’d sit down and he’d go ‘Do you want a sweet?’ So I take a sweet and he goes, ‘Well, why did you take that sweet? Do you think you should maybe be looking after your diet a bit more? Are you too willing to follow what others say?”

Richards would also insist every Harlequins player bought his opposite number a pint. “The club had a city-boys reputation and he wanted to get rid of that. He wanted to bring back the social element of rugby and a sense of respecting your opponent. His approach may have been a bit odd and old school but at that time it was probably what Harlequins needed.”

Bloodgate was the last thing they needed. Instead of respecting opponents they’d cheated them. Winger Tom Williams was caught on camera winking when coming off with a blood substitution to be replaced by penalty-kicker Nick Evans. Turned out he’d bitten into a fake blood capsule.

Was Keogh surprised? No.

“I was aware that had gone on before. It wasn’t just Harlequins. It was going on in other [Premiership] clubs as well, so in a dressing room it nearly becomes normalised. But this was done on a stage like a European Cup quarter-final. It wasn’t done discreetly.

“People used always give out about the substitution of props when they were saying they were coming off injured and then tactically bringing guys back on. That was some form of bending the rules. But Bloodgate was just straight up cheating.”

Even then it wasn’t enough to stop Leinster. In 2009 nothing was stopping Michael Cheika’s side. It was a completely different environment from the one Keogh had known from playing with the province for the first four seasons of the noughties. When he thinks of the demographic of the crowds that used watch himself and Brian O’Driscoll play in Donnybrook in 2002, the word and colour that comes to mind is “grey”; that was the typical hair profile. In 2009 the team and sport had the RDS buzzing with kids and families. Leinster had come a long way. So had rugby.

Something else that has both reflected — and shaped — the status of the sport in this country is the health of the players’ association, IRUPA. For years its staff only consisted of its pioneering chief executive Niall Woods, an administrator, and the one player development manager to cover all four provinces. Now it has a staff of nine, including Keogh and a dedicated player development manager for each province, most notably Derval O’Rourke for Munster.

Keogh has seen first-hand how there’s hardly a rugby-playing country in the world, certainly in the northern hemisphere, with a better player welfare and development programme. Before he was a Leinster players rep with Shane Jennings upon his return to the province, Keogh had been a RPA rep at Harlequins.

“It’s the nature of English sport for young fellas who’d got their £5,000 in the academy to think they were footballers and made it to spend it right away. Those who went on to make a career in the game did okay for themselves. But you had guys forsaking colleges to take up an academy contract. When that didn’t work out they had neither rugby nor college. I wanted to make sure in the interest of player development that college courses weren’t an afterthought; that they were done in tandem with their rugby.”

That’s how it worked in his own case. While he was starring with Ireland U20 and teams, he studied economics and politics in UCD. In the last year of his first contract with Leinster he took a course in legal studies and sat his exams in Blackhall Place. In his return stint with Leinster he’d lift weights in the morning rather than with the rest of the backs so he’d be able to take further courses to upgrade his legal qualifications.

It meant that when he retired from professional rugby in 2010 (fittingly he would go back playing a couple of seasons with his club, Old Belvedere, and win the AIL) he could work in his father’s solicitors’ firm and a year later with Arthur Cox. Then he was snapped up by IRUPA .

In a way he’s a bit of an Andy Dufresne for players, helping them with legal and financial paperwork. It’s only when you know what he does that you realise you’d be lost without him.

“A big one is clarity of contract. Lads can be unsure about their position regarding payment, like how long they’re entitled to pay when they’re injured, especially a career-ending one. All of a sudden they’re getting a letter from the IRFU saying they’re getting four weeks of pay and that’s it. If lads didn’t know their rights they’d just accept that. But now they know they can pick up the phone and say ‘Simon, what am I entitled to here?’

“Insurance is a common one. Emotionally it’s a difficult time for any player. At least he can now contact us, understand how to make a claim, we put them in touch with a broker and help them through the whole process.”

Typically when he goes around the provinces there’ll be about five players in each camp with some query.

It could be about tax. Say, the Sportsman’s Tax Relief, commonly called the McCreevy Exemption which allows players to claim back a 40% tax deduction on gross earnings over a 10-year period. There’s been a change to it. It used to be that you had to retire in Ireland. Now it can be anywhere in Europe. Players coming towards the end of their career can be more open to accepting offers from abroad.

Something that has taken up a lot of Keogh’s own time is agent regulation. The IRFU and its in-house counsel Declan McPhillips would have devoted a lot of energy to it too but Keogh has worked with him and other agencies to establish a common set of regulations with England and Wales.

“Up to last year anyone could represent a player and the player might say ‘Do you want an agreement?’ And you might say ‘Nah, we don’t need that.’ Now if we have a dispute in the future, you might tell me that I the player am still your client. That happens all the time. It’s just the nature of how we work in Ireland, we go by the handshake and sometimes relationships break down. And when a player moves on to another agent, the original agent is unhappy but they don’t have an agreement.”

Now an agent has to come to IRUPA. They do an exam, send in a 500 application fee, proof of professional insurance and a player agency agreement. Everyone wins, he feels. IRUPA — especially Keogh — will help upskill and advice the agent. The agent and their player can operate in the UK.

But what about the father representing the son? “Well, we can’t turn around to an academy guy and say that if your father goes into this negotiation he has to be registered. At that level players don’t need an agent, just some support, because there’s a level of payment which is prescriptive. But if when they get to the third year of that contract or they excel in the second year and are looking for it to be upgraded, then they’re negotiating. And if that representative is taking any kind of fee, even if they’re hardly making a living off it, then it becomes a commercial arrangement so they would need to be registered.”

He’s there to guide them with that. He even helps other players groups from other countries. Keogh also does some work for the International Rugby Players Association, and just this week has been helping one World Cup-bound team sort out issues with their governance. IRUPA like the players it represents is working at a world-respected level — and yet wants more.

“In a way you could say the biggest issue is that we want to get paid more. This is players’ livelihoods and they want to make sure they’re remunerated fairly. At the same time there’s an understanding the limitations the IRFU are working under, that there’s not a bottomless pit.

“Ultimately we want the same thing as the union (IRFU). We want them to retain Irish players and keep them in the country. If we can keep creating an environment where the players are not only attracted to staying at home for provinces they have hugely loyalty and regard for, but that they then have a support network and collective representation that’s second to none, then yes, they might get a bit more money elsewhere, but they’ll ask and realise would they be as well looked after anywhere else?”

Keogh will be there to back them up.

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