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'He nailed Vermeulen and Steve rang going 'We have got our man!'

By Liam Heagney
: Steve Borthwick, (R) the Leicester Tigers head coach looks on with his coaching and management team during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby at Welford Road in August, 2020. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Jan McGinity figured it could work out like this, the fortunes of Leicester turning around hugely on the pitch with him no longer beavering away in the background at Oval Park and seeing out to its expiry the three-year deal he had originally inked as head of elite performance recruitment. Such is the hectic nature of life as a fix-it man, a contracts supremo who dives in at the deep end of clubs or governing bodies in dire need of an overhaul. 

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The Lincoln University graduate had earned his stripes at Dean Ryan’s Worcester and then took off to Scotland to become the SRU’s first head of sports operations before summer 2019 saw him jump into the relentless business of implementing an overhaul at Tigers, the fallen England giants who had been scarred by an eleventh place Gallagher Premiership finish that had them fighting to stave off a potentially ruinous relegation.

That placing hadn’t improved when the Covid-hit 2019/20 season eventually ended, Tigers still plumbing the depths in eleventh, but the building blocks were now in place and while McGinity was soon told he was too expensive to remain on the books at a club that had been leaking £1.2million monthly during the height of the financially damaging pandemic, his near 18-month overhaul of the roster has since stood the test of time with Leicester now out in front in the Premiership and soaring high in Europe

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What happened when RugbyPass went behind the scenes at the Leicester Tigers acadeny
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What happened when RugbyPass went behind the scenes at the Leicester Tigers acadeny

Their latest dramatic success took place in Galway on Saturday not too far from where McGinity now earns his crust. He is based in Ireland, heading up a new company that specifically deals with the recruitment of coaching staff while he also separately provides advice to a myriad of organisations. 

He stays in touch with some former Tigers colleagues. He will often text backroom staffers such as the team manager and kit man to salute a Leicester win, he stays in contact with fitness guru Aled Walters, the Springboks World Cup winner he recruited to finesse the stamina of a squad struggling to see games out, while he also caught up with Steve Borthwick last summer before the head coach embarked on his second full season at the club where the results – 16 wins in 17 games – have been immense in restoring the tattered reputation of Tigers as a powerhouse in the world game. 

“I am watching the success on television,” he told RugbyPass over Zoom. “There is a small element of envy that I would love to share in that fun side of the game because you work so hard to try and get those moments, but ultimately rugby is such a small community that people know the work that you do… I have worked in so many different organisations where you are resigned to the fact that you are never really going to see the fruits of your labour, it will always be someone else. You just try to retain your positivity and look at the positives.

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“I look at the just under 18 months that I was there and, like any player, you want to leave the place in a better place than when you inherited it. I put some reasonable building blocks in place that has allowed the club to move on but also there were people prior to me that did that as well… I’m not massive in being a hanger-on. Leicester is part of my past and I’m glad I had that experience but I’m not one to try and force my way into sharing the glory.”

We will have much more later of McGinity and his 100-mile-an-hour existence at Leicester: the blank sheet of paper he was given when he initially joined and the unprecedented contracting crisis that then unfolded twelve months later when the Premiership salary cap was cut, sparking a madcap ten-day period where existing deals had to be quickly renegotiated.

First things first, though: How did a player who knew he wasn’t good enough as a semi-pro player with the National League 1 Newbury go from that gutting realisation to become a greatly respected rugby administrator whose two-decade career has seen him go from working as an agent representing some of the game’s biggest names to the hiring and firing of players and staff as a club/union employee and now back to agency work again?

“I got injured, had to get a job, so I moved up to London and had a lot of mates working in rugby. I knew I wanted to get into rugby but didn’t know how, so I ended up being a financial advisor representing about 100 players and looking after their money. Matt Perry then came to me and said, ‘Look, I trust you with my money, can you actually help me with a contract?’ I said I’d love to do that and ended up doing more and more.” 

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Tentative plans to start a company with Simon Cohen were aborted when Leicester snapped up Cohen as head of rugby operations in 2005. That left McGinity instead accepting an offer to join Global Sports Management, a southern hemisphere company looking to bump up its profile in the UK. “My first trip to Northampton and I am looking after Carlos Spencer, Bruce Reihana, Mark Robinson and you are kind of like, ‘This is why I got into it’. We grew that company, sold it after three years and got to the point where we then went on and sold it again. 

“The reason I got into it was I loved giving good contractual advice and working with players to get the best out of their careers, but I kind of fell out of love with it a bit towards the end because a lot of players were asking, ‘When can I get a new pair of boots? Can you get me a VIP invite to this opening of a nightclub?’ I never got into it for that reason so I said to the company, ‘I’m happy to leave, I will give you all my clients, just give me a bit of money’. 

“I set up a consultancy business to advise clubs on how to recruit and that is when I started working at them. Dean Ryan had left Gloucester and went to Worcester. He was an ex-client of mine and he said, ‘Come to Worcester. It’s a bit of a mess. Can you help me put together a squad to move it forward?’

“That is when the consultancy side of my career started and I moved from one side of the (rugby admin) fence to the other. I said if I ever went back to agency work, I’d want to work with coaches and also there is a gap in the market for those high performing staff who don’t quite get advice, your heads of medicine, your heads of strength and conditioning, even the people who were in the kind of positions I was in. 

“No one is there to give them advice on what their career should look like. Having done about ten years on each side in rugby, it’s quite nice now being in a position with all of those learnings and experiences and decisions and frustrations and positive elements that come with it that you can have quite an empathic conversation with a club owner, a director of rugby, a head of administration, a CEO, a COO because you have been through every single element of that and seen how it works, what you did and historically what can be done when having those types of issues.” 

There were ample japes and scrapes over the many years and McGinity volunteers some of his most colourful moments getting contracts over the line. “The irony is it does involve Leicester,” he quipped. “I’d a really good deal for Nick Evans for the Premiership, basically a toss-up between Leicester and Harlequins. Simon Cohen was basically doing all Leicester’s recruitment, but he had just got off a train to Paris and reckoned he was going to sign (Juan Martin) Hernandez.

“He basically said, ‘No, we are not going to sign Nick Evans’. I’d been to the club, taken videos of the Leicester setup for Nick, but then I basically had to ring up Dean Richards and kind of beg him to take Nick at Quins having had Leicester fall through. I still remember Dean laughing at me on the phone, ‘How after this do you expect me to take him back?’ But we ended up structuring the deal.

“That was one I reflect on, and another that stands out is signing Val Rapava-Ruskin as this guy sleeping on a Georgian player’s couch in France. We signed him at Worcester for a grand a month and put him up and he has gone on to play nearly 100 times for Gloucester. Everyone was just looking at the size of this guy walking in the gym (at Worcester) and saying, ‘How the hell did you find him?’

“At Leicester, the two guys I was happiest to get over the line were (Julian) Montoya and (Jasper) Wiese. Montoya because I had actually gone to Argentina and to get him made that trip worthwhile and justified it. With Jasper, he was quite unknown and under the radar. We signed him and he played the Bulls the following week opposite (Duane) Vermeulen and was man of the match. 

“He did one tackle where he absolutely nailed Vermeulen and was just standing over him and I remember Steve ringing me going, ‘We have got our man! That is the type of guy I want’. I remember the first game at Welford Road, his agent picked him up at the airport and I sat with him for most of the day. It was a Tuesday and he was starting on the Saturday and he ran into someone and I was sorry for them because he literally just kept going. 

“The dynamism he showed in his first ten games, everyone was just stunned that we had managed to find a guy that no one had really gone after. You get a few (contractual) wins like that but then I have had a number of ones which I probably won’t talk about where it’s ‘why did that player never come to the fore?’”     

Let’s switch back to the specific role McGinity had in the impressive Leicester overhaul. Just what was it like when he arrived through the door at Tigers after a calamitous season where they diced with Premiership relegation? “It was pretty much a blank piece of paper. They had just finished eleventh and Simon (Cohen, now the CEO) was very much, ‘We need to find out what we are doing moving forward, we need to have a proper plan in place, we need to have processes and procedures.

“I was like, ‘If I get free rein I will come because I want to build something that can last a test of time and we can all reflect in time that we were all glad we got involved’. I remember asking for the next three years’ salary cap and it was, ‘Oh no, we do that at the end of each season, so there is no electronic copy of that’. Then I said, ‘Well, what about the contracts? Surely they are all digitised, so can I see them?’ I go to an office at the stadium and there are in two filing cabinets. 

“I’ll give this analogy: You have a 26,000-seater stadium, the biggest purely-for-rugby stadium in the country with the highest amount of season ticket holders, the highest amount of commercial revenues and you see this amazing performance orchestrated on the pitch and it’s a bit like going to the theatre. You see this amazing performance but then you get the chance to peek behind the curtains and it’s absolute bedlam.

“It was a learning process for me but it also gave scope to turn things around. We were very lucky in the sense that clubs had just got their CVC money, so Leicester had £13m in the bank and I said the first 100 days there I would like to meet 95 per cent of the agents that represent the players off contract because it was coming into the tail-end of a World Cup cycle where you potentially don’t get many good players, so I knew we would have to kiss a few frogs, go around the world trying to find some unpolished diamonds. 

“In the first 100 days, I went to France, Italy, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. You do all that legwork and hope things come off the back of it, that you get goodwill for showing your face. I didn’t want to sign a player that would cost the club a million or three-quarters of-a-million over three years and not see the white of their eyes. I wanted to see if they could speak English, what their attitude is, are they polite, do they actually want to come, is it just a financial decision, so by getting on a plane and illustrating you were willing to do that, players, agents and stakeholders bought into it and it was really important. 

“Financially I was allowed to do that by the board so that started the ball rolling but there was a bit of pain and we went from turning over a decent amount of money and where results had started to turn a bit over Christmas 2019 and then it basically stopped. I remember we had Dan Kelly’s parents visit that first week (of the March 2020 stoppage) and us not quite knowing what the regulations were. 

“So there was me, Geordie (Murphy) and Ged (Glynn) in the main office two metres apart with his parents two metres apart with Dan and we are, do we shake hands? No one knew. It was those types of things and suddenly we were three, four months away from the office and you go from time management to crisis management overnight. 

“The club got a few things wrong initially in the sense we knew we had to cut costs and probably the way we went about that initial wage reduction for the players and staff wasn’t done in the most empathic way and that caused that a bit of ruckus and you had the five players who eventually left. We seemed to have more back page headlines as a consequence of wage reductions than any other club.

“It wasn’t as if we were the only ones doing it, everyone in the league was making wage reductions. It’s a good news story, don’t get me wrong, but it was frustrating when you were literally every day trying to stay positive and look to the future when you didn’t quite know when the league was going to start, you had new contracts starting on July 1, new personnel coming in and potentially dealing with wage cuts for those guys who have never been at the club before. It was definitely an interesting first 12 months.”  

What were the most important contracts Leicester got done? “The two key appointments were Steve and Aled. It was tough when everyone was pointing fingers and there was a number of different reviews, whether it was Pat Howard or a previous one prior to that. I knew the club was desperately trying to change things… by coming in with a different perspective having worked in different teams and also with a governing body, I was used to addressing matters and was quite happy to ask a question on what is going wrong and point out why don’t you do it differently?

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and Leicester had gotten into that rut of ‘we have always done it this way, this is the Leicester way, this is the way we should do it’. There was almost a bit of arrogance that if we do it enough like the Leicester traditional way we will come out of it, but by bringing in guys from outside who had respected what had gone on historically but also had their own views on what could change and how to change it, people listened to Steve, myself and Aled. 

“Professional sport can be very self-protectionist. Look at football where a manager will bring all his own staff. It’s not whether or not they are any good, it’s more that he knows they have got his back. If you look at most successful industries, they recognised that when they have got a skill deficit they will look to bring in the best expert in that field. 

“In sport, people tend to be concerned if an individual shows excellence in that specific field it will reflect badly upon them when actually it’s the complete opposite, it will actually reflect well on their leadership skills. But there is a lot of self-preservation that goes on in sport, especially at the moment about covid where people are so scared about losing their job that they don’t want to bring in people that might show them up. 

“Simon had enough confidence in his position as CEO, which is ironic now as he isn’t there, to bring in people who were experts in their own field, who could do what they felt was right and back themselves to do it as they were given the authority to do it. I would be grateful for Simon for giving me that chance and then backing it up by allowing me to fly around the world, go and meet people, bring deals to the table and actually get them over the line. Leicester still had enough of a reputation for its historic wins and the success it had that you could still just about trade-off that. 

“The academy was slightly different but I said to Geordie when I first joined that I want us to have a really core group of players from the area who relish playing for this club, feel a part of this club and want to go on and be proper ambassadors for the club. One-club men are getting rarer and rarer but there are a few guys like Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Ben Youngs. 

“I was delighted we were able to offer them long-term deals to give them their security that Leicester would be their club for the entirety of their career… and then the likes of Jack van Poortvliet, Freddie Steward, George Martin, to be able to give those guys four-year deals at a time where we wanted to lock them in, it’s delightful to see those three guys doing well, especially Freddie getting his international recognition. I still think George will get back into the international set-up and Raffi Quirke and JVP will have a battle over the next decade to get that England shirt.”

What does McGinity feel the long-term ramifications of the salary cap reduction will be across the league in England? “That pain will only be further felt in the next twelve to 24 months… What you have seen is a number of teams have said, ‘Right, we are going to keep a core group of individuals but we are going to have to let some guys go’, and it has gone down from two to one marquee player as well.

“Obviously you can’t leave one Premiership team to go to another as a marquee player so the fact that George Ford, Ellis Genge are moving on, they won’t be the highest-paid players at those clubs for two years until they potentially can be. The reality of the way that cap is now hitting is you are going to be very reliant on a core group of 25 players which is then supplemented by another ten to 15 coming through your academy. 

“Teams in other leagues now pay more than they can in the Premiership and the irony is that the biggest benefactor will end up being the RFU because it will be a predominantly English league because you can’t play for England if you play overseas, so players who want to play for England will want to play in the Premiership and so wages will come down roughly 20, 25 per cent and it will also mean you won’t have that traditional sprinkling of overseas stardust. 

“You might have one as your marquee player but more often than not, those players will elect to go to countries that pay more and also a lot of players are reticent now of coming overseas because of covid because they don’t want to be too far away from their loved ones. They don’t really want to be stranded on the other side of the world.”

Rugby Coach Management Ltd is now the vehicle mostly taking up what the 46-year-old McGinity is doing and while he reckons finances in rugby will take two to five years to return to pre-covid levels, he is optimistic his new agency can thrive. “It [coaching] is a really brutal industry, harsher than the playing because you don’t have an injury as an excuse for finishing. What always staggers young coaches is the level of intensity and the work level that is required to become an excellent coach. 

“I’d love to change the model and I think Brian Ashton talked about this years and years ago: I’d have some of the highest-paid coaches at the youth level because if you can get the basics right and behaviours correct from the outset they will have far better careers and be far better players. You should really invest in infrastructure and make sure you have really outstanding coaches at that level but also properly remunerate them for the work they are putting into those players. 

“The coaching landscape is quite hard because traditionally most coaches have been represented by player agencies and there was always a bit of a conflict. As soon as a coach goes into a club they are given a list of players that are available from that respective agency. I wanted to set up something so there is absolutely no conflict and ironically Australia have just brought a rule that no coach and player can be represented by the same agency. What they have recognised is it is a different business. 

“Most coaches, whether they are good or bad, have been sacked at some point and one of the key things is how you kick on and recover from that. Like any sports business, you might get promoted quicker than you potentially thought and then sometimes if you do get sacked it is quite hard to reinvent yourself. 

 

“We just want to work with coaches, we don’t want to muddy the waters by saying we also want to do players as well. The first four pieces of work we have done have been working with governing bodies, franchises, clubs, helping them find the best staff fit for certain roles but also using the best structures and processes that they need at that time for that organisation to be successful. 

“It has been quite liberating to have quite a free rein to have conversations with people and see where we can help them, either from a consultancy perspective or finding the right staff member. It’s fun. I have just started to do some stuff in the MLR and they are at the stage where the Premiership was before when it first moved the salary cap up. 

“The original owners of franchises have realised you need slightly deeper pockets if you want the franchise to progress. New owners are starting to come in and it is at that point where it starting to kick on. They see getting a World Cup to America in 2031 but they need a strong domestic product to make sure their spanking against a second/third-string New Zealand team doesn’t happen again. 

“There is a huge opportunity in emerging markets and even speaking to World Rugby about what they want to do in North America, South America and looking to Asia, there is a lot of opportunities to give good advice to help organisations to move forward on the basis of what I have learned and seen in operation over the last 20 years in the Premiership, in URC and actually working for a governing body as well. It’s exciting.”

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