For the second weekend running, Leinster are in Wales. European champions, Guinness Pro 14 champions, and arguably the best team in the world outside of New Zealand, the Irish province seem to get a lot right. Geraint Powell highlights one area – the contracting of players – where lessons could be learned.
If you knew nothing else about Welsh rugby, the advent in 2014 of a pool of money to dual centrally contract with a region a limited number of leading lights, would tell you that player contracting had previously gone awry.
These were marquee – and, in some cases, not so marquee – Test players contracted to ward off further departures and to help bring back existing exiles.
Welsh rugby, at the decentralised level, had been competing in and inevitably losing in the Europe-wide free market for the best part of two decades.
Dual central contracts, somewhat euphemistically termed “National Dual Contracts” or NDCs, were a product of the conflict between the then WRU leadership and the regional funding directors.
If you view the regional relationship with the WRU in terms of arms length external service suppliers, the inequality of bargaining power will suppress the price.
In the worst case conflict scenario, the regions have to sell services. But they could not remain solvent without selling to the only potential buyer that could decline to buy and – at least in the short to medium term – rely upon World Rugby’s Regulation 9 for player release.
If the WRU were to increase funding of the regional game through equity stakes, the historic debt mountains and poor balance sheets/income statements would make any such share purchases decidedly unappealing.
Dual central contracts were essentially increased WRU funding/subsidy of the regional game via asset purchases, contributing £2 million per annum – later increased to £2.5 million per annum – towards purchasing players and retaining them in Wales for the benefit of the Test team and their host regions.
Their future suitability is now being discussed, with suggestions they will be discarded altogether, in terms of “Project Reset” and the next renewal of the “designated regional organisation” franchise agreement with the Cardiff Blues, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets.
Will the time be up for NDCs, for they have obvious limitations in terms of player contracting and in significantly improving upon the hopelessly unsatisfactory 1995-2014 situation?
Firstly, small country central contracting models work best when all Test squad players or – better still – all professional players are on a central contract.
It enables the governing body to control the entire wage structure, value players relative to each other, and easily manage the welfare and conditioning of the entire player base and ensure focussed player development to provide depth in all Test positions.
In no sense do a handful of NDCs achieve these objectives. The risk is that NDC recipients are somehow seen as superior, and Welsh rugby is thin in some positions e.g. tight head prop.
Secondly, central contracting systems tend to have as an objective the elimination of unnecessary domestic wage inflation and price competition.
Players move between domestic teams for strategic rugby reasons, not for financial reasons. The governing body only has to concern itself with the external financial threat, not domestic teams unnecessarily driving up player wages in competition with each other and making “a poor man’s market” even poorer..
Welsh regions are free to financially compete against each other and even against an NDC, as the Dragons did to ensure that Ross Moriarty came to the WRU majority-owned Gwent region.
The Dragons valued him higher than their governing body owner, a sign that they were back in business and a catalyst to aid further recruitment.
Thirdly, whereas most central contracting models tend to try and ensure a general funding equality between teams, subject to any limited bonus for producing a disproportionately high number of Test players, NDCs operate as a competitive “internal market” and which has led to significant additional WRU funding of two regions relative to the other two regions.
If NDCs were to survive at all, especially with a “play in Wales to play for Wales” rule now enforced up to 60 caps, it is more likely to be because there will have been a failure by all concerned parties to agree a better successor player contracting model.
Unlike Welsh rugby, Irish rugby did after a slow start get its act together in terms of player contracting.
All players are contracted to the IRFU, either through a central pool or through the IRFU’s constituent provincial branch teams.
David Nucifora centrally oversees the player pool – this season notably seeing Joey Carbery transferring from Leinster to Munster and Jordi Murphy from Leinster to Ulster in the national cause – and in the past acquiring overseas so-called “project players” e.g. CJ Stander, Bundee Aki.
We saw the fruits of this superior Irish resource concentration and player contracting on the opening weekend of the Pro14 season, an essentially Leinster reserve team exhibiting higher ball retention and recycling skills in coming from behind to defeat the Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park.
Leinster were able to secure an away bonus point win, whilst preserving many front line stars for financially more important European Cup and Test match duty across October and November.
Munster swept aside the Cheetahs in Limerick and Ulster accounted for an admittedly depleted Scarlets in Belfast.
If Connacht had defeated Glasgow, as they probably should, it would have been a clean sweep for the Irish provinces.
When Ireland were down at the bottom of Test rugby with Wales in the early-1990s, and without the excuse of mass defections to rugby league, few would have predicted that Irish rugby would pull so far ahead of a Welsh game no longer decimated by rugby league.
But Irish rugby got their non-Test structures and systems in place in the first decade of professionalism, to the extent they still have the option of private equity in reserve, and Welsh rugby did not.
So, Irish rugby is now enjoying the benefits, at provincial and increasingly at Test level.