- Former players discuss early teething problems
- Rugby wages have increased twenty-fold over the past two decades
- Irish rugby team now ranked second in the world and set for best ever Rugby World Cup
Wednesday, August 26 is the 20th anniversary of the day elite rugby turned professional. The decision arrived following a unanimous vote, at the Ambassador Hotel in Paris, by members of the International Rugby Football Board [now World Rugby].
Syd Millar, who was part of the Irish Rugby Football Union [IRFU] delegation at that meeting, says, “I was recorded saying at the time that I wouldn’t change my business so radically without certain safeguards or structure. The change was that no-one gets paid to everybody gets paid We knew – we were not daft – that professionalism had to happen but it was a matter of doing it in a controlled way and doing it properly.”
“The genie was out of the bottle,” he adds, “and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
It took the IRFU some 18 months before it was in a position to contract up its best players. By that stage, many of the country’s top talents – such as Keith Wood, Nick Popplewell and Conor O’Shea – had already moved to English clubs. The IRFU’s highest-paid contract was offered to three players – Peter Clohessy, Denis Hickie and Eric Elwood. For their Category A deal, they received £30,000 per year and a complimentary Ford Mondeo.
Today, 20 years on, Ireland’s leading professionals, such as Jamie Heaslip and Johnny Sexton, earn between €600,000 and €650,000 [combined wages and image rights fees]. Following the World Cup, New Zealand’s Dan Carter will become the first ever €1million a year rugby player.
Patrick McCarry’s book, The New Breed: Irish Rugby’s Professional Era, expertly charts the changing landscape of a sport that has captured the public’s imagination since it switched from amateurism. Former players such as Brian O’Driscoll, Denis Hickie, David Wallace and Ronan O’Gara provide candid, enlightening interviews. Current pros, including Johnny Sexton, Paul O’Connell and Rob Kearney, offer insights into the ever-changing science, slog and sacrifice it takes to make it in the modern game.
Leinster winger Hickie was a rising star in the early days of professional rugby in Ireland. He recounts, first-hand, the scale of the challenge the Irish provinces faced to survive. “When Leinster played Leicester Tigers (at Lansdowne Road in 1996),” he says, “you had this mish-mash of guys who were working through the day, professionals and guys wanting to be professional. We had David O’Sullivan, who played open-side for Skerries. He was a carpenter but had a part-time deal with Leinster. He was going directly up against England’s Neil Back.
“It was no wonder Irish provinces struggled in Europe. You would go to play teams in France like Toulouse, who were professional for years before the game turned professional. Great club sides with great heritage. Ditto for clubs like Leicester and Bath in England. We were a team thrown together and evolving so it took a while to catch up.”
“We still look back and laugh at those old days and what we were given,” recalls former Leinster fullback Girvan Dempsey, who is now the province’s backs coach. “There were Mars bars and cans of Coke handed out for recovery after sessions. Now you have the recovery drinks, a science behind everything and an education, for the players, of their dietary and training needs Looking back to those first few years and the social element was very much part of the game. You look at it now and see how dedicated the players are and how alcohol is not really part of their diet or programme. We’d be going out on big nights out and getting bags of chips on the way home.”
Down in Munster, the situation was no different. David Wallace recalls a goal-setting meeting, held by Dave Mahedy at University of Limerick in 1997. He says, “We were coming up with goals like beating Ulster, winning in France and winning the interpros. John ‘Rags’ Kelly, who had been around the squad for a couple of seasons, stood up and said ‘We want to win the European Cup’. People burst out laughing – that was the general atmosphere. Dave said he thought we should put it up and the response from a good few of us was ‘Ah, that’s not realistic’.
“There was a lot of debate about actually putting it up on the board. Rags had to argue his point, to convince us to put it up. That was the attitude at the time. We were a group that was thrown to together who didn’t back ourselves. We had no past history in the competition and thought Europe was a competition for the big teams. The year before we had been hammered (60-19) by Toulouse. As far as many of us were concerned there were the serious teams of Europe, then ourselves.”
Former Leinster and Ireland lock Malcolm O’Kelly was part of a similar goal-setting meeting, in 1998, with the national team. He comments, “The psychologist coined this phrase, ‘Dream it, believe it, see it, do it’. It was four of them. The process ended at ‘dream it’ as we, of course, just started laughing. What the hell were they talking about? Dream about winning a World Cup? Stupid! We all just giggled and laughed. There was certainly no way you were going to win a World Cup if you didn’t dream it and actually believe it. It was only later on, years to come, that we got to a stage where we could actually believe, and honestly think, that you might actually win a World Cup. We have come a long way from back then.” Irish rugby certainly has. Between Ulster, Munster and Leinster, there have been six European Cup wins. Ireland are reigning Six Nations champions for the second year in succession and will head into the World Cup as the second best team, according to the official rankings. It was rarely easy but the best success stories rarely are.
*Hodges Figgis, On Dawson St., Dublin 2, will host the official launch of ‘The New Breed: Irish Rugby’s First Professionals‘, from 6pm on Wednesday, August 26th.
The book is available, in paperback, nationwide RRP €19.99.