Every year millions of dollars of earnings are voluntarily given up by players in the American NFL. They literally don’t show up and sit at home. Laziness this is not. Instead, it’s part of a complex process between the franchise and the player to establish what that player is ‘worth’ – and it may well be worth rugby players taking a similar approach.

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‘Holdouts’, as they are better known, are sometimes hopelessly misguided attempts to force a pay rise by a player whose ego is not matched by his talent or an agent out over his skis, but far more often they are carefully planned attempts to leverage the true value of a player.

The business case for a holdout is two-fold. Firstly, to get more money. Secondly, and arguably more important, is to mitigate the risk of playing such a dangerous game as American football. A player due $600,000 in the current season may very well get a ten times pay rise in their next deal. 

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Courtney Lawes appears on All Access, the RugbyPass interview show

The question therefore becomes, is the risk of an injury worth $600,000 if it would jeopardise your future earnings? Probably not. It’s a reality that both the player and the organisation have to deal with and in the vast majority of cases, it is resolved long before any games are missed.

Rugby is probably the only team game on the planet that has a comparable injury risk to the NFL and although the money is not remotely comparable, the issues both sets of players face are similar.

On the face of it, there is not much reason for a rugby player to ‘holdout’. Unlike NFL players, who have to live through the drama of free agency post-season, rugby players have the opportunity to secure their future while still playing in the current contract. 

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An NFL player can only enter a contract with a new team following the conclusion of a season with their last team, so they need to be fully fit to get their maximum value. In other words, when a rugby club signs a player for next season, they take part of the long-term injury risk in the current season.

There are other factors at play too. An NFL player has one source of sporting income: the NFL. Rugby players have multiple sources of sporting income. In some cases, as many as three: club, international and a third term on loan during the off-season. Take Embrose Papier as an example.

It’s the international game that is the biggest difference. A player in the English Gallagher Premiership who makes £120,000-a-year might make up to an extra £240,000-a-year if they get selected for England. This means they need to be playing as well as possible – and as often as possible – until they are seen and eventually selected. 

However, what about established players? Cast our minds back to September 29 when Northampton lost to Sale in a game that was effectively meaningless for the Saints. During the midweek clash, Manu Tuilagi suffered an achilles injury which has put him out for six months, and he was soon followed to the sidelines by fellow England and Lions star Courtney Lawes. 

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Both will now miss out on around £120,000 of England match fees – maybe more in Tuilagi’s case. Tualagi’s requirement to play the game was non-negotiable. Sale at that time still aspired for a top-four place. But what about Lawes? Aside from club pride, what was he playing for?

Players are surrounded by people looking out for their ‘best interests’: agents, financial advisors (of which I am one, for full disclosure), mindfulness coaches and even breathing gurus. 

Yet where was a tap on the shoulder to Lawes to say, “Look, there is a good chance you might miss out on a lot of money playing this game?” Precisely what the chance is of injury is hard to say but it’s far from insignificant. Interestingly, rugby agents do not get paid any percentage of what a player earns from international appearances. If they did, would they give different advice?

By contrast to the Lawes situation, an NFL player – or even an NFL prospect – will be removed from all manner of physical activities to avoid injury risk. Even the Pro Bowl, one of the NFL’s premier events, is played at half speed with modified rules for this reason.

If we look at this from the other end of the telescope, it’s obvious that clubs agree with the position of mitigating risk. Players’ contracts are full of restrictions about things they can’t do, such as skiing.

Also, how many times have you seen clubs rest key players in preparation for a big game because of injury risk? In the case of the IRFU, they have a full-blown welfare policy to help ensure the Ireland national team is as close to full strength as possible.

These concepts of player welfare and risk mitigation, from a club point of view, are widely understood and accepted. However, it is doubtful if there would be a similar acceptance should a player treat his own asset, his fitness to play the game, with the same regard?

It would have been perfectly reasonable for a senior England player like Lawes to decline the last two weeks of the club season if his club have nothing to play for. Simply hand back the money and recoup it playing for England. 

It’s worth noting that players get very little extra money for playing in Premiership play-offs – certainly not enough to give up England money. The NFL have a separate system of payments outside of the salary cap to compensate players for the extra risk. Maybe rugby should do the same for the later stages of Europe and domestic play-offs?

This is an unlikely situation as players are competitive beasts. Asking a player like Tuilagi or Lawes – or in fact, any member of the England team – to sit out of a club game would not mesh well with their instinctive nature. It would make financial sense, though, and that is why players have advisors.

It’s reasonable to think this situation is not going away. The Premiership and the Champions Cup are great competitions but they are far from international rugby. Even at its height, the English domestic game was quite some distance from international rugby with its global audience, multi-national partners and a packed 82,000-seater stadium. 

If anything, top-end players will become more reliant on international money, not less. Particularly when you consider the compounding effect of personal sponsorships that result in being part of the national set-up. No matter how you view it, rugby has an incentive problem. The lucrative international windows are in the middle or at the end of the season, exactly when clubs are in a full-blooded fight for league positions and injury risk is at its highest. 

The obvious solution would be to have a larger international window at the start of the season. However, having seen the scrap that broke out over the proposed global calendar this seems highly unlikely. The next solution would be a reform of how England players are paid.

The flat match fee is a very blunt instrument, as Tuilagi and Lawes are about to find out. A better solution might be to select the squad at the start of the year and give the players a supplemental salary every month until the end of the season when the squad is reselected. 

The money would be less but players get security in return and certainty they don’t lose out on thousands of pounds if injured. This would certainly be more beneficial than the boom and bust of a match fee. There are also the never-ending fights over central contracts.

Ultimately, players and clubs do an imperfect job of muddling through how to keep a player healthy and their team competitive. In the future, however, as finances get tighter, this might become more of an issue. 

Rugby for its part should take a long look at how it structures its incentives, and players should be more ruthless to secure their financial futures.

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