Niall Woods thought he’d seen it all over his many years in rugby. Ireland Test winger. Chief executive of the Irish Rugby Union Players Association. Owner of Navy Blue Sports, the Dublin-based consultancy that represents upwards of 40 current professional players, a varied client list headed by Garry Ringrose and Andrew Conway.
Despite being around the block, the 48-year-old has never known such uncertainty. Rugby has completely ground to a juddering halt and the business is completely in limbo. It’s a frightening situation, especially when health is factored into the equation.
“I have one client who is waiting for a test for Covid-19,” he told RugbyPass, diving straight into the only topic on the rugby agenda these last few weeks – the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m sure there are more players, probably not clients of mine, around the country and in different countries who have it as well. A couple of players have been sick already, sort of three, four, five weeks ago who think they have had it because they had all the symptoms of Covid-19 but didn’t know it at the time.
“You have players asking, ‘what is my salary going to be next season?’ You can’t give a definitive answer. Legally and contractually the fees are agreed, the salary is agreed, but depending on how long the no sport goes on for, I can’t give an answer on that. Some guys are more concerned than others. Others are getting on with it. It varies from player to player, what they make of it as an individual. But there is a genuine concern just in general.
“I have been on to my clients a lot and I’m still looking for contracts for a couple. The uncertainty is even worse for those guys. It’s very hard, and then it is very hard to get answers from clubs because they don’t know what is going on either. Clubs in France, there is pretty much a freeze on recruitment in most clubs. Nothing is being done so it is hard to make any progress on that,” he said, going on to reference clients in other leagues such as America where they cancelled the whole season after just a few rounds.
“They are getting paid in full, the MLR are paying all their players. As it stands, they will be paid and most of them are already home. I have a client James Coughlan in France. He is in an apartment in Pau, can’t go out the door, has to sign a form when he wants to go out to the shop, so he is staying where he is.
“I have a client Danny Kenny in Italy, he has been like that for three weeks. It’s full lockdown except for an emergency or grocery shopping. Jerry Sexton at the Kings in Port Elizabeth, he is actually in Jersey. They allowed him to come up home. His partner had a kid in August/September time. A lot of clubs have been very understanding.”
Salary cuts have been a hot topic, but Ireland-based players have so far escaped that burgeoning global trend as the IRFU opted for a pay-deferral arrangement ranging from ten to 50 per cent. How long that agreement will hold, though, is uncertain.
“If it’s a deferral they are going to get their cut back, but that depends as well then on how long this goes on. If this stoppage goes on for six months that’s a different story, is it definitely going to be a deferral? If it goes on for another month, two months, it’s a deferral.
“This again goes back to the uncertainty and people not knowing. I can’t give the player an answer, a club can’t give me an answer because they are living in uncertainty as well. So it’s just difficult all round for everyone in every walk of life.
“Sport normally escapes a recession to a certain degree but there is no escaping this one. It’s probably one of the worst industries because they just can’t do anything, they can’t even train other than train on their own.
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“That is the other factor and people have talked about it already – even if say May 1 they can train (collectively) you’re probably talking May 21, a three-week period in effect a pre-season to get players back into it. It’s not like football where you could probably just start again within a week and play a couple of games every week.
“You can’t force anything or rush anything with this. Even if we were to declare no cases tomorrow in Ireland, I don’t know how many more weeks it will be before things go back to normal. You can’t rush it no matter whatever line of work you’re in to get it going again. It has just never happened before.
“The players just have to do what they are told like they always do. The S&C coaches are in overdrive in ways to keep them active, obviously reducing the mental side of it which is quite a hard part as well. There is only so much you can do on your own at home.
“You have seen on Instagram a lot of players buying home gym kits. Like, none of my clients had it already. Various machines, watt bikes, skiers, horrible pieces of equipment that define torture really. But how long they can do that for?
“They can go out for a run in most cases but it’s probably not that advisable. It’s just a matter of trying to keep themselves ticking over, eating well, keeping the immune system up, hoping you don’t get sick and if you do getting the various medicines, getting over it and getting back into it again.
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“It’s about riding out the storm, unfortunately. There is an element of old school knuckle down, you just have to get on with it, do what you’re told, and just get on with it. It’s not easy for anyone.”
Getting the Six Nations completed is imperative from an Irish perspective. A sell-out crowd was due to attend the postponed March 7 fixture in Dublin the week before Ireland were due in Paris to face the French. Then there is the prize money allocation, a multi-million euro divvy-up dependent on where Andy Farrell’s team finishes in the championship.
“They have to play the Ireland-Italy game because that is such a big revenue generator for the IRFU which then has a knock-on effect to the four provincial teams,” ventured Woods. “If you go to England, it has been reported they could lose up to £50million from not having games played. Games that are missed are important. Even England against the Barbarians.
“All rugby clubs are looking to get as much revenue as possible. It’s not like soccer where TV rights are so big. TV rights are important, but in rugby the gate money is how they survive. But for me it really goes back to Six Nations, can they get it concluded?
“From a selfish and Irish perspective, they need to get it concluded because the revenue from Italy being a home game is important to the IRFU and then where they finish on the table, the higher up they finish the more revenue they get from the Six Nations, so they all have knock-on effects into next season. There is talk about it being played in October – as long as it is played is a good thing, but I can’t answer if it is going to be played.
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“When Ireland-Italy was cancelled, we as a company would have had numerous players and ex-players speaking at events around the week of the game and the day of the game and that got cancelled… I genuinely didn’t see a situation where it was going to escalate. Like this virus was in China and until it comes onto your doorstep you don’t take it very seriously. It was hard to predict everything was going to come to a standstill.
“But certainly in Ireland the way we reacted, the government, I’m not into politics but in fairness to them they reacted pretty quickly with support for unemployment benefits, people losing jobs, supporting businesses, what they have done so quickly is very impressive. I’m not so sure the UK government has been as efficient as ours looking at it, but that is going outside of sport.”
Woods himself has had to take radical action to future-proof a business he started from scratch nine years ago after lengthy service at the forefront of the players union in Ireland. He believes it will be a slow rebuild everywhere for the sport.
“I started this business bang in the middle of a recession in 2011, so sport to a degree escaped it in that player salaries still crept up. People were still going to the games. There may not have been as many going to games as previously, the sponsorship numbers had come down for clubs, jersey sponsorships, team sponsorships at the time. It was still not business as usual but still business and money was coming in whereas now it hasn’t escaped it whatsoever and you have seen there is job losses, salary cuts, salary deferrals. It is really unique.
“Like any business, how do you plan for just a complete stop in income coming in other than a catastrophic event, which is in effect what this is. And then the uncertainty that comes with it as to when the season can conclude in some shape or form. If it drags on and drags on will they then have to abandon it, what effect will that have and then will next season start on time or not? For me, that is the biggest thing.
We wouldn't want to get on this referee's bad side! ???https://t.co/I6rxvuyI8m
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“I have already reduced salary by 25 per cent just to protect the business from a cash flow point of view. When you go outside of agencies, your sponsorships, personal appearances and events, that has just been wiped so any predicted revenues from that for the foreseeable future are gone.
“Then you look forward to November when you would traditionally be busy with players speaking and doing things around games. The November series, depending on how the world economy reacts or comes back, will there be a spend for corporate hospitality like there was in previous Novembers?
“Come November 2020 there mightn’t be a lot of spending money available for companies, so from that side of things it’s heavily reduced. I have people working for me on that side of things so their hours have been cut way back.
“It’s a matter of everyone knuckling down and trying to preserve cash flow situation, availing of supports from the government and just a bit of an element of hope that from a health perspective it gets under control in various countries, sport comes back and then business comes back towards some normality of what it was before.
“If you were an agency heavily reliant on sponsorship, appearances and events I would be very nervous, but thankfully I’m not. I do have all those elements but the primary business is the agency, but if there is no sport then it does become a concern for the business.”
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