Ireland’s first €1m-a-year rugby player could arrive over the next 18 months, according to one of the country’s leading player agents.
And Japan, hosts of last year’s Rugby World Cup, could become a lucrative destination for some of the island’s biggest names.
That’s just two of the trends predicted by Niall Woods, the former Ireland winger, who leads agency Navy Blue Sports.
With the likes of Garry Ringrose, Andrew Porter and Caelan Doris on his books, he’ll be involved with discussions at the very top of the game, and he believes CVC’s investment in the Guinness PRO14 will see more money enter the elite player’s bank accounts.
CVC, a private equity firm, with stakes in the English Premiership and Formula 1, is buying 27% of Celtic Rugby DAC — the company that runs the PRO14 — for €140m, with €40m of that making its way to the IRFU.
“Clubs in England aren’t sure what they will do with their windfall, and the CVC money will be coming in here too, so everyone is hedging at the moment — players, agents, clubs, unions...it’s a funny time for the market.
“It’s exciting in one way to see how it pans out over the next 12-18 months. Wages are rising in general, not a huge amount, but I think the top guys will go up by more again.
“The top players could creep up to a million a year.
“Those top players, by and large, are the ones who will take the most, and enjoy the most of the increases, the middle tier — guys playing a lot of PRO14 and some of those in England — good pros, they’ll be getting squeezed the most.”
Johnny Sexton is reportedly the best paid player with Ireland, with a central contract funded by the IRFU boosted by payments from wealthy benefactors.
It’s the kind of deal Saracens would love to be allowed to do (There is no salary cap in the PRO14), and Woods believes it may become even more common in the future.
“You see already there’s a €700k contract out there, with money coming from the union, then 100k from a club and 100k from a wealthy individual,” he said.
We’ll maybe see more of that — the benefactor setup — because the IRFU claim they don’t have the money.
“The provinces will have groups of private individuals who will assist with attracting players, it’s already happening in certain places. There may also be more brands/sponsors supplementing.”
That cash, plus the relatively ‘easy’ schedule, has been enough to keep most of Ireland’s top players at home, but Woods is not sure if that will remain the case permanently.
“Japan will really start to kick off more, there’s talk about a new, revised Top League coming and you could see players going there to play for three or four months, and getting a million for the privilege.
“Is that the way forward? Imagine being mid-career and being able to head over and play for a few months, then get the rest of the year off.
“In 10-20 years perhaps it will be like American football is now, a seriously curtailed season, due to the immense physicality involved.”
Woods wonders if the Irish player management system — that limits the minutes the elite Test players appear in over the course of a season — is working, given how the national team once more failed to get beyond the World Cup quarter-final stage.
And he’s also noticing a trend, among younger players in particular, to play more rugby.
“There are no hard facts that playing a max of 23 games is the way forward, because Ireland didn’t get to the semi-final again, and if you look at the two finalists (South Africa and England) they play a lot more than us,” he said.
“It’s not set in stone, so it will be interesting to see if that changes at all.
I’ve a few players who are looking at moving to play more, and I think the younger lads are more likely to leave earlier now if they’re not playing regularly, even more than was the case just five years ago.
“Jordi Murphy, for example, moved to Ulster to play for Ireland — and now he’s not in the international setup — but he’s enjoying playing more regularly.
“Playing for Ireland is a massive draw, but it’s becoming more and more a ‘job’ and not everyone can play for Ireland.”
Meanwhile, Murphy’s Ulster will play Toulouse on Sunday, 5 April, in their Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final at the Stadium Municipal, with a 3.15pm kick off, while Leinster will face Saracens at Aviva Stadium the day before, with a 5.45pm kick off.