News emerged earlier this week that Manu Tuilagi and Denny Solomona had been sent home from an England training camp for “team culture issues”. Details are sketchy at best, and whilst initial reports of an altercation seem unfounded, the drunken incident was enough for Eddie Jones to send both to the naughty step to have a long hard think about what they’d done.
For Tuilagi, fresh off a much-heralded reinstatement to the England fold, many are suggesting this means the death of a once-promising international career.
Tuilagi burst onto the scene with Leicester Tigers in 2010, following in the footsteps of his brothers with his explosive power and unique combination of strength and speed. He was named in the England squad for the 2011 World Cup and in 2012 played an integral role in England’s historic defeat of the All Blacks. By 2013 he was a Lions tourist and so it was no surprise when, in 2015, Tuilagi signed a reported £400,000-a-year contract, becoming the highest paid player in English rugby.
However, pretty much ever since then, Tuilagi has failed to live up to these lofty expectations. Already nagged by injury problems, Richard Cockerill admitted at the time that it was something of a gamble. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s probably fair to say it’s a gamble that hasn’t paid off.
Tuilagi has spent more time on the shelf than the can of expired beans in my mum’s kitchen. That’s not to mention his numerous disciplinary problems, from punching Chris Ashton in 2011 (understandable), jumping from a ferry in Auckland in the same year and, most seriously, being convicted of assaulting two female police officers in 2015.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have realised that these incidents actually precede the signing of his hefty contract. That assaulting of two women wasn’t enough to stop Tuilagi becoming the highest paid player in the league tells you two things – firstly, how desperate Leicester were to keep him and secondly, that rugby has a superstar problem.
This article isn’t intended to bash Tuilagi, or anyone else for that matter. But he does serve as a test case, and something of a cautionary tale against following the football route of elevating players to megastar status.
The reason Leicester felt compelled to offer Tuilagi such a high salary was because they felt they would get a return on their investment. He is a demonstrably talented player, with a unique ability to create something from nothing. That equals wins, which equals silverware, which equals money.
He is also a famous name and a recognisable face. That equals publicity, which equals supporters, which equals money. It’s not cynical to suggest some serious financial pros and cons were considered when debating whether to let the in-demand star head off to rival clubs. Leicester, however, is not a particularly rich club. Historic, yes, successful, yes, but in comparison to the likes of Saracens, Bath, or any number of French clubs with a wealthy backer, Leicester’s bank balance is extremely modest.
This means that the offer of such a large amount of money to one player will have had serious repercussions elsewhere in the budget.
Whilst initial fears that it would lead to in-fighting in the squad don’t seem to have come true, even my GCSE maths is enough to know that subtracting a large percentage from a total means there’s less to go round for everyone else.
Tigers did make a few high-profile signings post-Tuilagi, including JP Pietersen and Matt Toomua, but seemingly did so cautiously, knowing a huge chunk of their playing budget was sat on the physio table. That Toomua largely played in the same position as Tuilagi, and would have been on a decent wage himself, would have been especially irritating to those in charge of the Tigers spreadsheets.
Tigers haven’t seen the on-field success they’d have liked in recent seasons either. Whilst it would be ridiculous to pin all the blame on one player or one investment, having the shadow of Tuilagi lurking over the squad can’t have helped. The promise that he may return at any moment as the saviour of Welford Road would almost certainly have affected day-to-day operations as the club looked for direction, not knowing whether to build their future around him or cut their losses and focus elsewhere.
This is symptomatic of a larger issue, wherein the growing wage demands of players but slower increase in revenue of many clubs has created a need for superstars – if clubs can’t pay everyone the big bucks, they have little choice but to put all their eggs in one basket and hope that player is enough to lift the team to glory. Rugby can’t sustain its growing salaries in its current form, and examples such as the Tuilagi case should serve as a warning against throwing money around with the hope that some of it sticks to a trophy.
Of course, these fears could be unfounded. Maro Itoje is arguably the next superstar of world rugby, and is rumoured to be in line to become the Premiership’s first £1m player when his contract expires.
Thus far, Itoje has only had one notable injury, no major disciplinary problems and seems to generally have his head screwed on properly, especially given that he completed his law degree at the same time as starring for the Lions.
He may well serve to be a shrewd investment, offering excellent value for money for whichever club snares his signature in 2019. But at a time when the global game is looking increasingly financially precarious, we should beware the words of charlatan agents promising magic beans. If all we end up with is beans, then we could have saved ourselves all the bother and just looked in my mum’s kitchen.