Money men moving rugby’s goalposts

Rhys Webb of Ospreys is joining Toulon. Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
Rhys Webb of Ospreys is joining Toulon. Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
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You can’t blame Guinness Pro14 boss Martin Anayi for trying. He was told to do something and he did something but on all available evidence his expansion programme has failed in what it was intended to do: keep the jewels in the Celtic crown playing at home.

Welsh rugby is reeling from recent news that Test scrum-half Rhys Webb will be joining Toulon next season. His salary has not been revealed but he will likely double his current package at the very least.

He is following his half-back partner Dan Biggar through the Ospreys exit. The stand-off is joining Northampton Saints this summer for a salary that has been reported as a healthy £600,000 per annum, which is nice work if you can get it.

“Gatland’s Law” was designed to keep the best of the Welsh at home. It allows just four foreign-based players in the Welsh match day squad, dropping to two in 2019/20.

It may need a tweak, otherwise next season Gatland will only be allowed to pick four players from: Jamie Roberts (Harlequins), Rhys Priestland and Taulupe Faletau (Bath), George North (Saints), Nicky Thomas (Gloucester), Webb and Biggar. The following season he will be allowed just two.

Closer to home, Finn Russell has been attracting covetous glances from France, with Montpellier, Lyon and Racing 92 all thought to be interested, and the feeling remains that if the Scottish ten doesn’t fly the Scotstoun coop this summer he will do so next, following the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

It may be worth pointing out that a few years back Russell is rumoured to have moved from Stirling County, where he couldn’t break into the first XV, to Falkirk Rugby Club for the princely sum of £50 per week, although you suspect that Racing would have to dig a little deeper into their wallet to tempt him across the Channel.

But the Scots are reasonably relaxed about his potential move; with only two pro-teams they have no option. They are obliged to farm players, (and their salaries) out to the wealthy French and English clubs if only to prevent a log jam in Scotland.

While the South African expansion reportedly put £500,000 extra funding into each of the original Pro12 clubs courtesy of the South African Rugby Union (SARU) it is a drop in the ocean compared to the riches on offer in France and England.

The biggest wages in world rugby are paid, or rather will be paid, to Charles Piutau by current Championship side Bristol next season whether they win promotion or not.

The former All Black will earn a cool £1 million per annum, courtesy of Bristol backer Stephen Lansdown, the Guernsey billionaire who co-founded financial services firm Hargreaves Lansdown. Piutau is classed as one of two marquee players who don’t count towards the salary cap; not that anyone mentions the elusive “cap” these days without a knowing smirk.

The point is that when one Championship club can splash £1m on one player then the Pro14 clubs’ recent windfall of half that sum is barely worth the effort of everyone flying half way across the globe and back.

Even that windfall may effectively disappear when the new Six Nations sponsorship deal is finally done. In the absence of any company willing to stump up the £15 million that the Royal bank of Scotland is said to have shelled out, the Six Nations has gone back to RBS and accepted a deal worth something like £11m. If that figure is right then the four million difference will directly diminish the spending power of the Celtic unions.

So why don’t Ireland lose players abroad? Well, they do, just not so many.

Right now Marty Moore is playing his rugby for Wasps, Ian Madigan lasted just one season at Bordeaux before he too fetched up at Bristol and only last summer Donnacha Ryan joined Racing 92 where he has yet to play because of a neck injury. None of the above has made a single international appearance since leaving Ireland and Ryan, a shoo-in for the autumn squad, would almost certainly be overlooked even if fully fit.

Ireland offers tax breaks to players who spend the majority of their sporting career within the country, which undoubtedly helps, but when asked why most stars stay put one Irish commentator offered this: “The players are scared of [Ireland coach] Joe Schmidt who won’t pick them if they move abroad and they know they will get well looked after in Ireland.”

Unlike the Welsh equivalent, “Schmidt’s law” is unwritten and unspoken. It doesn’t officially exist, which is why Jonny Sexton still got picked when the outside half upped sticks and joined Racing 92 for a couple of years. He was simply too important to ignore but that sort of leeway is not afforded many.

Given the understandable panic about the growing injury crisis within the sport, Ireland’s management of their top stars is a trump card up the union’s sleeve, a carrot to reinforce the stick that is “Schmidt’s Law”.

Irish internationals regularly miss the opening month of the Pro14 season. Only recently Leinster’s four-strong Lions contingent made their season’s bow against Edinburgh in the fifth round of matches. Scotland’s own Test players are not allowed to play more than five matches in succession without taking a break and all the Celtic nations rest their Test players ahead of the Six Nations and the autumn windows.

The ground is shifting in the Celts’ favour. In the midst of an unprecedented injury crisis in the sport, the Dragons recently had 24 players unavailable, Wasps and Harlequins similar numbers, and the English club owners’ response: extend the season!

The Pro12 could lay claim to hosting the safest league with the best rested players, but by chasing SARU’s money they are instead fighting a war over wages they cannot win while undermining, with long-haul flights, their own unique selling point, the welfare of players.