The recent stories regarding players at Saracens and their business interests away from rugby – and a possible connection with breaching the salary cap – have dominated the news in recent weeks.
Saracens’ signing of Elliot Daly added fuel to the fire this season about how the north London club were able to do so whilst still adhering to the cap, but there is much more to players moving clubs or opting to re-sign with their current one, than simply the money on offer.
We polled 13 leading agents on what their top three destinations were for players within the Gallagher Premiership, as well as the three destinations that they were least likely to advise their clients towards.
Putting aside money, which is a great leveller across the competition, what is it that makes clubs appealing to players?
Starting with the most desirable destination, Exeter Chiefs were remarkably selected by all 13 agents as one of their top three clubs, with effusive praise for what the side from the south-west has done.
“The culture that Rob Baxter has created there is a massive pulling factor” were the words of one agent, whilst another polled said that there’s “a chance to win, there’s great coaching and they make you a better player.” The quality of life and attractiveness of the location was also mentioned and was second only to the London clubs in terms of frequency of citation.
Saracens were next up, following close on Exeter’s heels with 11 of the 13 listing them among their top three, with agents quick to mention how good they are to work with.
“You’re London-based, you win stuff, they make you a better player, they look after you like no other club and if you’re a regular starter, there’s a good chance you’ll get capped” was the response of one person polled, whilst others mentioned the off-field success players there can achieve, as well as the attractiveness of the location.
The votes were a lot more split behind those two perennial title challengers, however, with Harlequins making it into five top threes, whilst Northampton Saints and Bath both made it into four. Gloucester were the other side to make the cut, with two agents including them in their selections.
With Quins, location and stadium were both given as reasons, as well as the brand of rugby they play, whilst Saints were praised for their honesty in and speed of negotiations, with the club from the East Midlands usually keen to conduct their business early and give players time to plan moves or know that they are staying in the area for another season.
The facilities, ambition and link with Bath University were all reasons given in regard to Bath, as well as there still being an “aura around the club and a feeling if that they can get it right, they could fly.” As for Gloucester, their upward trajectory under David Humphreys and Johan Ackermann was mentioned.
Unfortunately, it can’t all be positive and there were some notable trends among the Premiership clubs listed as less desirable destinations for players.
N.B. Of the 13 agents polled, one wasn’t comfortable giving a bottom three, so the maximum possible selections for each club in this section were 12.
On Newcastle, one agent said, “location is not the most appealing, they aren’t the best communicators and Premiership stability is a question,” whilst another raised the issue that it is “not seen as a club you can really progress at, with the exception of Mark Wilson.” Comments on Worcester were similar, with another stating that “it’s a fight for survival every year and not the most desirable place to live.”
Wasps were next up with seven selections, with their training facilities cited by most respondents, whilst another said there are “a lot of off-field distractions and a big crop of homegrown players have left. They’re about to go through some rebuilding.”
Sale Sharks followed that with five selections and a lack of communication and feedback from the club was questioned, whilst Leicester Tigers (three) and Bristol Bears (two) were the other sides to receive multiple selections. Quins were listed by one agent and they are the only club to appear in both the top three and bottom three selections.
What the poll revealed is that away from financial security, the primary motivators for players to move are their ambitions to win things.
As runaway leaders in the top threes, the positions of Exeter and Saracens in the Premiership table and their ability to compete on multiple fronts each season are impossible to ignore. With that culture and environment that has been created, their competitiveness at the top of the table and in Europe, not to mention their attractive locations, is it any wonder that players are willing to pass up some earnings to stay or move there?
Unfortunately for Newcastle and Worcester, that is mirrored at the bottom of the table, where players and agents are reluctant to move to sides that are threatened by the spectre of relegation.
Everything is dealt with on a player-by-player basis, however, and one agent opted not to give a top or bottom three, based on the fact that they felt it was an impossible question to answer, with certain clubs fits for certain players, whilst they wouldn’t be for others.
The poll does show, though, the importance of factors such as environment, culture, training facilities and open and honest coaching staffs, and although titles are not something a club can necessarily offer in the short-term, all of these other factors can be improved and highlighted regardless.
No one is suggesting that potential success is not the biggest lure at Exeter or Saracens, but there are lessons to be learned there for other clubs. If culture can be a swing factor in recruitment and player retention, it could be decisive in bringing about on-field success. With the latter of those two seemingly impossible without the former, it’s a good starting point for clubs looking to build a side capable of taking them to the top.
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