It’s been an emotional rugby narrative of the coronavirus pandemic, the pay cuts at the elite end of the game around the world. There is a macabre interest into how the Premiership elite or the Super Rugby stars are reacting to losing a chunk of their salary, but spare a thought for the low-earning professionals at the bottom of the game’s food chain.   

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While the likes of Itoje, Tuilagi and so many other household names are still coining it given the extent of their money-spinning contracts in the first place, those eking a living out playing in the sport’s lower reaches have had their income decimated. 

Take Irishman Danny Kenny. His career claim to fame was 40 minutes off the Premiership bench for London Irish in front of more than 23,000 in a November 2013 defeat at the Welford Road home of Leicester, the then defending champions. Since that sole top-flight appearance at the age of 25, he has earned his living as a journeyman pro, Doncaster, Ealing and London Scottish all English pit stops on a low frills adventure that eventually took him to Italy in summer 2018.

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Mako Vunipola takes on Billy Searle in the semi-finals of the RugbyPass FIFA charity tournament

It is there that a nightmare unimaginable to the likes of Itoje and co unfolded in recent weeks. With no indication the Serie A season would be terminated, Kenny flew back to Bergamo on March 10 after visiting his ill father in Ireland thinking there was still a campaign to finish with Valpolicella, the club near Lake Garda that operates in a championship a step below the better known Top 12.

Within days, everything radically changed. Italy went into lockdown and Kenny has effectively spent the last month under house arrest, his only outlet a rare trip to the supermarket to stock up on food paid for with his own savings after he was told the club salary he was contractually entitled to through to the summer was scrapped due to the rugby season ending prematurely.

It’s incredible adversity, one with no end yet in sight as the Italian government restrictions have just been extended into May leaving Kenny fearing that even the player-coaching contract he has for next season might now not be honoured.

“It’s obviously pretty worrying,” he told RugbyPass, taking a break from the endless routine of reading, drawing and virtual table quizzes with his team-mates that have become his groundhog lockdown existence living in an apartment with no access to a garden. “I have been told they are unable to pay me for the rest of the season, so I currently have no income and I’m stuck here. That is not an ideal scenario to be in. 

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“I do think of the bigger picture scenario. I’m healthy but not having a source of income and not having a job is a whole new grasp of reality to me. I have another year’s contract here next year but if I’m not being paid for the rest of the year, who knows what state rugby will be in next year. 

“A lot of clubs rely on sponsorship and individual sponsorship. Our club is essentially sponsored by one individual and their company is currently recording about €400,000 a month in losses so to a lot of companies, sponsorship is going to be the last thing on their list. It’s going to be needing to recover and looking after your own employees. Sponsoring a club isn’t necessarily going to be on top of your priorities.”

Part of Kenny’s monastic routine is mapping the level of new virus cases in Italy, particularly as Bergamo, where he flew into pre-lockdown, is only a short spin up the road and was the worst-affected area in the country for quite a considerable time. It’s why limitations on daily life in the Verona region have been so harsh.

“Our lockdown measures are very severe. We had been told April 10 was the date (for easing them) and now they are saying it won’t be until May. It’s quite a long haul to be stuck in an apartment. You can feel oppressed but you have to remember we’re still one of the lucky ones, we’re healthy and safe.

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“When this first started I struggled because I had a routine, a schedule pretty much for the last eight to ten years. I was frustrated with not having a routine, not really having a purpose in my day, but you get accustomed to it. You make yourself productive… yes, essentially (it is house arrest). We have had police cars going past blaring sirens telling you to stay home and if anything it has intensified as it has progressed. 

“You’re only allowed out for emergencies or to do a food shop. If you’re out you have to have a document from the government saying why you’re going out, what time you left, the date, what type of ID you brought with you, how long you think you will be out for. 

“If you’re stopped and don’t have these documents you’re fined anything from €3,000 up. I have been to the shop three times in the lockdown and I have been stopped by the police twice on the way home. They check your documents, ask where you have been, how long you have been, make sure your documents match the time frame.”

It’s a draconian existence that has left Kenny thankful for being so dedicated to his trade, putting whatever little money he could away over the years for fear a rainy day might ever arise. This good habit has proven all the more useful given the slow reaction of the Italian government to help people who have lost their jobs. Unlike the furlough system in Britain or the covid payment in his native Ireland, there was no assistance until a scheme was unveiled at the start of last week. Even that will take quite a while to provide any payout assuming he is successful.

“It’s a huge application process. You have to be resident of Italy, have an Italian bank account, have a registration with the Italian government. I have all that so I’m going to apply but the waiting list is meant to be incredibly long and they’re dealing with all the sportspeople who make less than €10,000 a year first and then dealing with the rest after… I had savings in the bank from playing over the last few years and my expenses are pretty limited. It’s just wifi and food. In this situation, I’m okay with spending. I’m not in any financial difficulty thankfully.”

That’s just as well. If Kenny put his sports management degree to use or stuck with a marketing job he had before playing rugby professionally, he wouldn’t be stuck in isolation in Italy and feeling uncertain if he has employment next season. Yet, he wouldn’t change it for the world. He just adores the game, even though he isn’t starring at an elite level. “Ideally I’d like to be representing Ireland at the next World Cup but that isn’t going to happen,” quipped the back row who turns 32 in July.

“I just love the game. That’s what is pushing me, I love playing. It’s a passion and I want to play for as long as possible. I have always enjoyed it and that is what is pushing me to stay at it. I’m much happier doing a job I love rather than sitting at a desk and potentially making double, triple my salary but being unhappy, waiting for the weekend. I look forward to every day of playing, training and coaching.

“My last year at London Scottish (2017/18), I said to myself that if I didn’t get a Premiership offer at the end of that season I’d look to use rugby to experience something else, something new. I felt I’d given a lot to rugby and needed to realistic. I’d always backed myself to be a top-level player but to be signed by a Premiership club at the age of 31 as a back row is quite rare. If you’re an overseas back row at that age you have got to be an ex-international. 

“I always had it in the back of my mind while I had no major commitments, why not experience rugby while I still can? I’d never heard of Valpolicella. I was approached by a different club in Italy maybe three or four years ago who I’d heard of but I never heard of Valpolicella. I’m really happy. It has one of the most humbling experiences I have had in rugby as a professional. The reason is I’m quite fortunate to be part of a club who knows who they are and what they represent. You don’t really find that very often within a Championship squad.”

Kenny sounds the epitome of all the hard-working pros who enthusiastically make up the numbers and give the sport its depth underneath the layer of stars. He’ll put up with all sort of difficulty and just get on with it, as evident in his current predicament in Italy. But there is one sliding doors moment he’d love to fix if he ever had his time over again.

“Any club I have been in I have always been 100 per cent committed to the cause, committed to bettering myself, but I have one regret that sticks in my mind. When in UCD I played for Connacht Eagles a few times. I’d been down there, built a good camaraderie, and was then was asked to play against an American select team. On my drive down I got a call from Leinster asking me to play against Bristol in the British and Irish Cup (April 2013). I was on the bench for Connacht and Leinster told me I’d be starting at six for them. 

“I still drove to Connacht to let them know, talked to them and made the decision to start for Leinster in a competitive game rather than sub for Connacht in a friendly. But the day of the game they brought Rhys Ruddock down from London because he didn’t get enough game time against Wasps in Europe. He started ahead of me and Leinster gave me the last four minutes. 

“I never got to go back down to Connacht after that. In terms of rugby that was my only regret, that I didn’t stick with a club who were pursuing me. That day didn’t turn out very well for me.” 

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