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A transfer market could hold the key to making rugby even more competitive

RugbyPass logo RugbyPass 10/06/2019 Alex Shaw
Mako Vunipola throwing a ball: A transfer market could hold the key to making rugby even more competitive © (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images) A transfer market could hold the key to making rugby even more competitive

Rugby has increasingly become a sport of the haves and the have-nots since the advent of professionalism in 1996. However, the one thing that has eluded the sport as its commercial appeal has grown has been a transfer market.

Unlike football, rugby union clubs strengthen their teams almost solely through their own academy pathways and the contracting of players whose previous deals have ended at their former clubs. There are examples here and there of teams paying compensation for a player to be released early from their current contract, but they are rare occurences.

Recently, Leicester Tigers and Gloucester engaged in a transfer of sorts, with Ed Slater and Jonny May moving between the two clubs while still under contract.

Mako Vunipola is another success story of the model. Saracens paid compensation to get him out of his senior academy contract at Bristol Bears back in 2011 and the loosehead has gone on to be a staple of Saracens’ domestic and European success. It will probably go down as the best sports bargain signing in north London since Thierry Henry arrived at Arsenal in 1999.

One of the larger contributing factors to the lack of a rugby transfer market is the short-term nature of contracting in the sport.

One-year, two-year and three-year deals are all commonplace in rugby and although four-year deals are also offered and accepted, they are far less common. The concept of four-year deals being the standard and five- or even six-year deals being struck, such as there are in football, is a relatively alien one in rugby.

With the shorter-term nature of rugby, clubs are happy to wait for a player to reach the end of their current deal and then attempt to lure them to their team in the final year of that contract.

For the have-nots in the sport, this represents a significant problem as they regularly lose players they have invested time and money into developing for no financial reward.

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@j0nny_may is in some wingers' paradise right now. ?? @englandrugby #FRAvENG #englandrugby #francerugby #twickenham #rugby #sixnations #6nations #rugbygram #rugby? #premrugby A post shared by RugbyPass (@rugbypass_) on Feb 10, 2019 at 10:55pm PST

The now-annual exoduses from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to Europe and Japan have undeniably hurt Super Rugby as a product, while the national teams have faced their own fair share of problems. Only the All Blacks have consistently maintained the former stranglehold of the “Big Three” at the top of the international game.

It’s not just a cross-hemisphere issue, with domestic northern hemisphere teams such as London Irish, Yorkshire Carnegie and RC Massy all having been preyed upon by larger clubs who can offer players higher wages and more realistic shots at trophies.

No one can begrudge the players their willingness to move for those factors, but it does leave their former clubs in the tough spot of having very little to show for their role in developing that talent.

Of course, the haves would generally wield more financial firepower in any rugby transfer market if it were to exist, but at least it would compensate teams and unions for losing players that they currently receive nothing for.

That money could then be re-invested into the playing squad or into the side’s academy, generally redistributing wealth within the professional arm of the sport which currently predominately resides in Europe, although the corporate model in Japan allows for big money signings even if there is not too much left over to distribute among the other players at the clubs.

With the Gallagher Premiership and Top 14 both operating under a salary cap, the Japanese Top League having a quota on the amount of foreign players who can feature in a matchday 23 and the Guinness PRO14 having a mix of salary caps and foreign player rules, depending on the nation of the side in question, the hoarding of players would not necessarily follow the uptake of a transfer market.

In football, as long as a side is compliant with the financial fair play regulations, they can attempt to hoard young talent from as young as 15 or 16, and the cost of doing so, through both transfer fees and wages, is largely irrelevant in comparison to the huge revenues they draw.

In rugby, rules prevent players being poached prior to the age of 18 and the lower revenues – and thus salary caps – would prevent teams from stockpiling players at a young age, if they still want to put out a competitive senior squad.

For example, if a club near the top of the Premiership were to look at a talented 19-year-old at Worcester Warriors and fancied adding that player to their squad, they may only need wait until January next year, offer the player improved terms and a realistic shot at silverware, and he could be leaving Worcester as soon as the summer of 2020.

If he had a four-year contract upon coming into the senior academy, even on the basic senior academy wage in the competition, that top club may have to pay £90k or more in compensation to sign that player now rather than waiting until 2022 for his contract to be up and for him to become available. That money would then be available for Worcester to reinvest, rather than losing him for nothing a year or so later.

With the multitude of rich benefactors in French and English rugby, as well as the corporate backing in Japan, the fact smaller clubs in those countries can go financially unrewarded for their efforts in developing talent seems unfair. The southern hemisphere isn’t iummune to the lack of reward, either.

Rugby’s ability to generate revenue is severely limited in comparison to football or a number of the major US sports, so a way of bringing through an extra stream of income from involved and committed owners that can be redistributed across the global game could be a welcome one.

If the haves are already able to exert strangleholds on their leagues due to their lure as a destination for players out of contract, at least the odd transfer fee here or there would allow teams improve their fortunes through reinvestment of the funds. Having a productive academy would not only pay-off on the pitch, it would also be rewarding on the bank balance.

Opposition would, of course, be rife. There is a reluctance among many rugby fans to embrace anything remotely football-related, while the sport’s limited player pool and unavailability of players during international windows would put teams off significant investment in transfer fees.

That said, with rugby’s limited wealth and the club game’s secondary status to international rugby, it is almost an inbuilt safeguard against the sport going too far down the road of football with extravagant transfer fees and risky financial management.

Regardless of where you stand on the idea, it’s not something which is likely to happen any time soon. To successfully create a market, you would need a global buy-in from clubs – and their respective unions – players and agents.

The clubs that are regularly pilfered for players may be keen, as could their agents who would have a new source of fees, but the bigger clubs are unlikely to be keen on giving up the shorter-term contracting and zero-fee additions they are currently able to make.

The introduction of development compensation could help in that regard. It could ensure that if clubs sign a player at the end of their contract and that player has been developed by their former club (eg: four years prior to the age of 22), that club is due a small but signficant payment as compensation, regardless of the fact he is out of contract.

If clubs are no longer able to snap up talent from elsewhere with no financial repercussion, the idea of a transfer market may become more appetising.

If it can encourage teams to develop their own talent and see them rewarded when that talent moves on, as well, as helping unions in countries where they can’t economically compete with the money on offer in Europe and Japan, then it is at least worth consideration.

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