James Ryan’s signature on the dotted line on Wednesday 68 days after Bundee Aki did likewise with the IRFU was indicative of how the identity of those who hold top-earning contracts on the Irish scene is going through a changing of the guard at the moment.
Ryan and Aki had both been on respective provincial deals with Leinster and Connacht, but they have now been bumped up to the category of remuneration that sets the elite stars apart from the rest in Irish rugby.
Basic salary for the select few who are handsomely rewarded ranges from €350,000 to around the €600,000 per annum, quite a pay packet compared to the leaner salaries on offer at the provinces.
The upper echelon has been a cosy club for quite some time. Many years ago, way back during the Eddie O’Sullivan era, these wholly IRFU-funded deals were tossed around like confetti before the rebuilding of the Aviva Stadium caused a major rethink in strategy.
With the IRFU taking on a capital commitment of €77.5million towards the stadium redevelopment, the number of centrally funded contracts dramatically fell from 30 to 21 in 2010.
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Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton speak following Ireland’s 19-12 win over Scotland
It has since further reduced in the David Nucifora era where they IRFU have been hugely selective in which players merit European market-type salaries, packages backed up in a number of situations by agents sourcing private business money for their clients.
With the emphasis on the delivery of plenty bang for the IRFU’s buck, there has been a series of cagey, cat-and-mouse negotiations during the Australian’s tenure that can lead to a drawn-out process.
This to and fro was especially evident in 2018/19 when nine players – Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Rob Kearney – were all due to fall out of the contact at the end of the World Cup.
Scotland's starting 8 made 133m off 59 runs at the Aviva compared to just 44m off 64 runs in the previous encounter, a ball-carrying threat that caused the overall Irish tackle rate to soar.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 2, 2020
In the end, seven managed to renewed deals with only the now-retired Best and O’Brien, who is now at London Irish, not getting re-signed.
In the year prior to that, you had the departure of Donnacha Ryan to Racing and the retirements of Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne and Jamie Heaslip illustrating the turnover that can happen at the top end of the IRFU pay scale.
The emphasis in the latest round of contracting is different, though. With only two of the dozen players currently on central contracts possessing agreements set to expire at the end of this season – Devin Toner and Kearney – there is more of a focus on securing players who are in the Ireland set-up on provincial contracts.
The likelihood is that Kearney, who was left out of new coach Andy Farrell’s Six Nations squad, is finished at central contract level – it wasn’t until last May that he managed to secure the one-year deal that ensured he would go to the World Cup rather than potentially take up an offer abroad.
'His unchallenged message is that his squad is dynamic, powerful and aggressive with a lot of skill and speed, a nice soundbite if rah-rah soundbites are your thing twelve-and-a-half weeks on from World Cup crucifixion by the All Blacks,' writes @heagneyl
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 16, 2020
Also, the rise in Ryan’s pay packet will likely be detrimental to how Toner fares at the negotiating table, his hand further weakened by his omission by ex-boss Joe Schmidt from the World Cup squad and by the fact that he turns 34 at his next birthday in June.
Instead, the intrigue will be on whether young guns similar to Ryan can also switch from provincial to IRFU-type salaries now that they earned their stripes. Jacob Stockdale, for instance, had just six caps to his name when he shook hands on a two-year Ulster deal in mid-February 2018.
He has since consolidated his status as a regular Ireland starter and while he has managed just two tries in his last nine appearances, he and his representatives, Esportif/Line Up, will feel entitled to terms from Nucifora in Dublin rather than an extension with Ulster in Belfast.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 5, 2020
Similarly, Garry Ringrose who settled for a two-year extension at Leinster the last time he was at the negotiating table in 2018. Now with 29 caps, he too will likely want his Navy Blue Sports agent to be talking improved numbers with the IRFU rather than with Leinster.
Josh van der Flier and Jordan Larmour are two other Leinster talents who can also feel their progress with Ireland merits reward from on high rather than remaining on provincial terms. After all, they are meeting the base requirement for a national contract – consistently getting a starting position in the Irish team.
THE IRFU’S CENTRAL CONTRACTS LIST – The dates they signed and the agency
JAMES RYAN (Line Up) – February 5, 2020, for 3 years to June 2023
BUNDEE AKI (YMU Group) – November 29, 2019, for 3 years to June 2023
CONOR MURRAY (Line Up) – October 10, 2018, for 3 years to June 2022
ROBBIE HENSHAW (represented by his father) – February 19, 2019, for 3 years to June 2022
KEITH EARLS (Baker Sports) – October 25, 2018, for 2 years to June 2021
JONATHAN SEXTON (Horizon) – December 11, 2018, for 2 years to June 2021
CIAN HEALY (Ikon) – May 21, 2019, for 2 years to June 2021
JACK McGRATH (Esportif/Line Up) – April 2, 2019, for 2 years to June 2021
IAIN HENDERSON (Blue Giraffe) – March 20, 2018, for 3 years to June 2021
CJ STANDER (Essentially SA) – December 21, 2017, for 3 years to June 2021
TADHG FURLONG (Line Up) – December 15, 2017, for 3 years to June 2021
PETER O’MAHONY (Horizon) – December 15, 2017, for 3 years to June 2021
DEVIN TONER (Esportif/Line Up) – December 1, 2016, for 3 years to June 2020
ROB KEARNEY (Line Up) – May 27, 2019, for 1 year to June 2020
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