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FEATURE How agents have helped emerging nations talent triumph

How agents have helped emerging nations talent triumph
4 weeks ago

Since the 1990s, football has been gripped by a new profession which played a big hand in running the show: agents. From Jorge Mendes to the late Mino Raiola, the sport profoundly changed with the ascension of agents, working with clubs and players, negotiating bids, contracts, transfers and whatever else was needed.

The football agent trend started back in the 1970s, but only rose to prominence three decades ago. Now, agents are firmly established among the dominant forces in the game; some of the biggest drawing so much attention they, too, might be football superstars.

There is a correlation with rugby. As the sport grows, and the flow of revenue and investment across the game increases, players need to find someone reliable to represent their interests and work as a broker.

Simao Bento was part of Portugal’s Rugby World Cup squad (Photo by Alex Livesey – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Rugby has only been professional since 1995, and its agents have become more conspicuous over the past decade as the game evolved, the number of signings increased, player profiles ballooned and the importance of good recruitment grew. Top clubs have extended their reach beyond local and national academies, to the Pacific Islands and emerging nations across Europe and the Americas.

One of those cases was Simão Bento, the Stade Montois utility back, who moved to France from his native Portugal in 2021.

“When I first came to France, I didn’t have an agent – I only moved here because of my teammate José Lima – but once here, someone called me after two months,” he tells RugbyPass. “We talked and established a partnership. Since then, he has been dealing with the club, helping me get a contract renewal.

“I know some players who signed with big agencies and are disappointed because of the lack of attention they receive. My agent, for example, doesn’t have and doesn’t want to work with a lot of players, as he prefers to fully dedicate himself to those who are under his wing.

“He has been helping me with a variety of subjects, from taxation to talks with the club, and it has worked perfectly. It all comes down to who is your agent, and players have to make a wise choice before picking one. In France there’s no written agreement with agencies – as it is illegal – it’s all verbal, and I think it is the best way to do things.”

I don’t think an agent is super important to become a professional rugby player,

Agents have the power to open new worlds to those from less illustrious rugby backgrounds, and so it was for Brazil’s Nelson Rebolo. The prop moved to Western Force in 2023, and now has signed with RFC Los Angeles.

“Why did it matter to have an agent? To support and build a professional profile, one that would attract clubs to talk to me and hire me,” Rebolo says. “My agent’s work goes from dealing with all the contract bureaucracy, to finding me the best options, to helping me with day-to-day stuff.”

Rebolo admits he only sees “benefits” to having an agent by his side, and advises young players to follow his example. But not all deem formal representation necessary.

“I don’t think an agent is super important to become a professional rugby player,” opines Dutch captain Koen Bloemen, who has joined ProD2 title chasers Vannes on a short-term deal. “When you’re younger you can join bigger clubs and come through the age groups. But when you’re older and want to move or negotiate between clubs and discuss salaries that’s when, for me, an agent comes into play.

“I don’t think young players need an agent. Joining a CDF (centre de formation) or academy is easier when you’re younger than 18 and if you play well you can stay. However, being a foreign young player in France is a bit tougher and the player needs to be proactive.”

South African tighthead prop Cody Thomas made the move to France in 2014, signing first with Montpellier, before joining Brive then Rouen, and warns of the pitfalls of becoming too cosy with agents.

“Sometimes agents try to become your friend, and that can end up with a sour taste when you want to bounce to a great opportunity. You need to make sure your relationship with your agent doesn’t blur too much between the friendship and business.

“I was first recommended to talk to an agent who represented a few other boys in the Montpellier academy and he helped with everything – sorting out all my documents, visas and flights. He was there to fetch me from the airport and was just great for helping me to get into France. I was very appreciative of him for the five years he was my agent.”

Players, on the whole, understand the assistance an agent can offer. Most deem it a necessary part of playing professionally. But what do the agents look for in a player? And how do they get the best opportunities for their clients?

Jack Willis
Jack Willis is no longer eligible for England selection having signed for Toulouse (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

“There are challenges with assessing younger players as they haven’t fully developed,” says Finlay MacLeod of BSMI Rugby. “Props whose scrummaging skills take a long time to develop, as well as locks, as height is such an important factor and we don’t know how much more they will grow.”

France is one of the most fertile and attractive destinations for aspiring professionals, with its multi-tier professional system, rich heritage and generally attractive lifestyle. The ProD2 and lower leagues are peppered with players from less heralded European nations and further afield. French clubs work with ‘JIFF’ rules, under which a player must have been registered with the national federation for at least five years up to age 23, or have spent three year in a federation-approved training centre before turning 21. Each club is subject to quotas on the number of JIFF players in its squad.

“If they players don’t meet those JIFF criteria, the chances of getting a full-time contract are lower,” MacLeod says. “We had a very promising centre who did well in a Top 14 academy, but because he couldn’t become a JIFF player, they didn’t keep him on.

“At Espoirs (academy) level, the French clubs are more open-minded because you can achieve JIFF status and then still play for another nation. Whereas in England you lose your EQP (England Qualified Player) status as soon as you play for another nation, which compromises your market value dramatically.

“French academies will invite players to come for a trial experience which normally lasts a few days; they do a lot of tests and put them under pressure with trial games. They try to find out what’s their personality, mindset, and ambition if they have the desire to keep studying and learn new things.

“When looking for young players in Europe we don’t really look beyond the international U18 level, mainly the U18 Rugby Europe Championship. That is a good testing ground for us to look at them and see who is good enough to move to France. We scout them in those competitions, and then approach them to see what are their ideas for the future, before presenting them to clubs across France.”

I want to help emerging nations players find a way to the top. We are fighting their case, and that’s why I think having an agent nowadays is more important than ever.

None of this is to say moving to a big rugby hotbed is straightforward.

“For players from ‘Tier Two’ nations I would say it is more difficult to become a professional in France or the UK now than ever due to the disruption to the market. Clubs have gone bust in England, the shrinking of the professional game in Wales, and the tightening of the JIFF rules in France. Clubs are looking less to those markets, as they have so many players to choose from in the top ten nations, that have top level experience and are without a club.

“That’s why I want to help emerging nations players find a way to the top. We are fighting their case, and that’s why I think having an agent nowadays is more important than ever, as we can keep contacting clubs, sending CVs, footage and data and really sell that player’s qualities. Clubs do their scouting all over the world, but if we come to them with all the information pre-arranged and put it in front of them, then it makes a huge difference to that player’s chances of being noticed.”

This dynamic could change again, with rules governing agent fees under consideration across France. Currently, clubs must pay a small percentage of the player’s contract to the agent, which exempts players from paying their representative out of their own pocket. French teams are exploring the possibility of changing this, with players paying the agent, and being given a 3-8% wage rise to compensate. That, however, could turn agents into employees under French labour law, adding extra tax liability and affecting income. For players at the lower end of the professional game, that tax bill could sting.

Agents have played a major role in the opening-up of the game, and its commercialisation. The spectre of football-esque practices can unsettle rugby supporters, but it’s a simple fact players need qualified advisers to advocate on their behalf. That’s when a rugby agent comes in, and that, increasingly, is where the sport is heading.


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