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Unpacking the IRFU central contracts

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The eight players left on Irish Rugby's 'central contract' hit list and how the IRFU plan to pay for them

It’s one down, eight more to go for the IRFU following Conor Murray’s recent announcement that he will continue to play his rugby in Ireland until 2022.

The handshake of Murray – currently rehabbing an old neck injury that resurfaced rather than undergo surgery – is only the first of many deal-maker David Nucifora will hope to arrange this winter to ensure the Irish union’s central contract system remains the envy of the Six Nations.

With Murray locked away from foreign overtures following his three-year extension, the post-2019 World Cup futures of Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Rob Kearney make for a stellar cast of names due at the negotiating table in Dublin.

The premise is simple. What warrants a national contract is a consistent, starting position in the Irish national team and rival national coaches Eddie Jones and Jacques Brunel can only jealously look at the set-up Joe Schmidt has to work with.

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In Ireland the sport’s stars are centrally managed by the IRFU, a policy which means the headline acts are never flogged by the provincial teams.

Take next weekend as an example: Schmidt’s leading players will be off-limits to their clubs for round seven PRO14 duty, Ireland’s November 3 match against Italy in Chicago instead taking precedence.

That’s a landscape so very different to England and France where self-interested club owners dictate terms to the respective RFU and FFR administrations. They would be up in arms if requested to release players for a Test match taking place outside of the designated three-fixture November window.

Conor Murray holds Six Nations trophy with Dan Leavy. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Not that everything on the Irish front is plain sailing regarding its streamlined centralised system.

Unlike now, where only a select few are handsomely rewarded with a basic salary ranging from €350,000 to around the €600,000 per annum Murray will reputedly bank (only Sexton takes home more in basic pay), there was once a time when everyone of interest to the national coach was on an IRFU central deal.

Those agreements were tossed around like confetti. Then came the sobering capital commitment of €77.5million towards the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road, the project which became root cause for the series of belt-tightening, recessionary cutbacks that resulted in the number of centrally funded contracts dramatically falling from 30 to 21 in 2010.

The provinces were told to up their money-making game to foot more of the contract bill, and what developed at IRFU level with the elite players was a series of cagey, cat-and-mouse negotiations that was regularly a more painful, drawn-out process.

It left the IRFU’s player contract review group, which involved volunteer administrators such as Limerick bank manager Martin O’Sullivan, frequently criticised for being too slow to negotiate and often accused of being too stingy with the remuneration packages it offered.

It was why the 2014 recruitment of Nucifora from Australia became crucial to preserving the Irish way.

His arrival meant you finally had a rugby professional managing the professionals and while the system hasn’t become controversy-free (Nucifora, for instance, gets taken to task for annually holidaying in Oz in January when some negotiations are at their most critical phase), few can argue that the former auctioneer’s wheeling and dealing isn’t largely a success in warding off overseas clubs flirting with Ireland’s best.

But for the IRFU striving to afford European market salaries, packages backed up in a number of situations by agents sourcing private business money for their clients, you could have had the awkward situation at the weekend of Peter O’Mahony packing down in Limerick for Gloucester rather than his beloved Munster, the English club allegedly being the Corkman’s prime foreign suitor last winter.

Ireland and Munster’s Peter O’Mahony (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

‘The good thing is we don’t lose too many players,’ claimed Nucifora not so long ago. ‘For the number of players that choose to go our retention rate is pretty good.’

Nearly all the stars offered bulging contracts in the last while have delivered plenty bang for the IRFU’s buck. That’s important as value for money is crucial. The IRFU may have raked in €85.7m revenue in 2017/18, but it created a minuscule surplus of €1.2m after all bills were paid. Professional game costs alone checked in at a hefty €42.3m cost.
Just because you have a central contract doesn’t mean it’s easily kept either. Donnacha Ryan headed to France and Andrew Trimble retired in summer 2017 when there weren’t extensions on offer. Tommy Bowe likewise finished up in 2018 rather than continue to play on a reduced provincial salary.

With injuries also forcing Jared Payne and Jamie Heaslip into retirement, there are officially only 14 players left on IRFU central deals. A far cry from the 2010 high of 30.

When agreement is struck, it’s IRFU policy to announce their success from the rooftops but there was one recent exception. With Healy deemed the IRFU’s coveted loosehead in early 2016, McGrath was forced at the time to settle for a topped-up Leinster wage.

That situation changed with McGrath going on to become a Lions Test series replacement and his terms were bumped from province to union figures that are now due for renewal.

Of the nine contracts elapsing following next year’s world finals, Murray was seen as the greatest overseas flight risk. Tying him down at such an early juncture this season was quite the coup for the IRFU.

McGrath, Healy, Henshaw, Earls and Sexton will also go to their respective Nucifora meetings dealing from positions of strength. Injury-plagued Sean O’Brien needs a run of consistency to polish his credentials, but it’s the talks concerning national team skipper Best and Kearney that most intrigue.

Keith Earls (Getty Images)

Having agreed a one-year extension only last March, veteran Best will be 37 if he plays at Japan 2019. He could amicably decide to go out at the top by calling it quits there and then rather than attempt to haggle and carry on. We’ll see.

Curiously, while age was an understandable factor in the short time span of Best’s last agreement, it was odd Kearney opted for a similar one-year extension seven months ago just a few days shy of his 32 birthday.

As a much younger man you would have felt he has many more seasons in him than Best and would desire longer term security. Instead, he will be back in Nucifora’s office for the second season in succession.

In his corner he will have Irish rugby’s most influential agent, David McHugh. The Line Up boss has come a long way from his days as Leinster team manager during Michael Cheika’s early years.

Kearney, Murray, Tadhg Furlong and O’Brien are all exclusively his clients, while he looks after the interests of Devin Toner and McGrath in partnership with Esportif who have former Corner Flag owner Ryan Constable as a figurehead.
That’s quite a stable of stars to be looking after in an era where players are seeking more and more in their pay packet.

The IRFU is feeling the crunch. ‘Affordability of the game is always a challenge,’ suggested Nucifora during one of his bi-annual state of the Irish rugby nation media addresses.

‘We have got some competitors with deep pockets. We have to continue to be smart in the way we develop our players, keep our players and compete at a high level. That is probably the biggest challenge.

‘That [private money] is nothing to do with us the way the system works. There is private money out there where the players through their agents go out looking for third-party money through their own agreement.

‘That happens. Is it helpful? Yeah. It brings money into the game. We certainly won’t be looking to knock that back. We have got to keep thinking about ways we can grow the finances within Irish rugby so we can stay competitive.’

With one deal down and potentially eight more to go. Nucifora is in for a very busy winter.

THE IRFU’S CENTRAL CONTRACT LIST
The dates they signed and the agency.

CONOR MURRAY
Oct 10, 2018 3 years to Jun 2022
Line Up
IAIN HENDERSON
Mar 20, 2018 3 years to Jun 2021
Blue Giraffe
CJ STANDER
Dec 21, 2017  3 years to Jun 2021
Essentially SA
TADHG FURLONG
Dec 15, 2017  3 years to Jun 2021
Line Up
PETER O’MAHONY
Dec 15, 2017   3 years to Jun 2021
Horizon
DEVIN TONER
Dec 1, 2016     2 years to June 2020
Esportif/Line Up
ROB KEARNEY
Mar 20, 2018    1 year to Nov 2019
Line Up
RORY BEST
Mar 20, 2018   1 year to Nov 2019
Esportif
CIAN HEALY
Feb 17, 2016   3 years to Nov 2019
Ikon
*JACK McGRATH
Unconfirmed 2 years to Nov 2019
Esportif/Line Up
ROBBIE HENSHAW
Feb 16, 2016    3 years to Nov 2019
None
KEITH EARLS
Jan 27, 2016    3 years to Nov 2019
Baker Sports
SEAN O’BRIEN
Dec 22, 2015   3 years to Nov 2019
Line Up
JONATHAN SEXTON
Sept 4, 2014    4 years to Nov 2019 Horizon
*Unlike the other 13, McGrath was never officially announced by the IRFU to have secured a central contract deal
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The eight players left on Irish Rugby's 'central contract' hit list and how the IRFU plan to pay for them