Rich man, poor man
January 12, 2012
Wales coach Warren Gatland is not guaranteed access to all his leading players © Getty Images
These are worrying times for Wales coach Warren Gatland. He knows he has a squad capable of taking Wales into the top three in the International Rugby Board rankings but there is a real danger everything could fall apart because Wales are near the bottom of the league when it comes to wages.
Whilst Stuart Lancaster has been able to carry through the policy started by Martin Johnson, insisting that he will only include English-based players in the Elite Squads (unless their contracts predate the introduction of the ruling), Gatland will be forced to compromise. He too wants his players to be based at home but he has already lost the likes of James Hook and Mike Phillips to France and there could well be a bigger exodus at the end of this season.
It is all down to money. There is now a huge gulf between the rich and poor even amongst the leading countries in the world. Professionalism has exacerbated the situation to such an extent that, given a free choice, most players would opt to ply their trade in France or England.
The other countries simply cannot compete. France is now the richest rugby nation by a country kilometre because their premier club competition has taken off in a way that none of the other countries have been able to replicate.
The Orange Top 14 generates huge revenues from big crowds plus massive sponsorship and television deals. Even better, most clubs play in stadiums owned by the municipalities where they are located and they are made available at knock-down prices with the clubs able to keep the revenue generated on match days.
If Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and Llanelli could give the same sort of support the finances of the Dragons, Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets would be transformed and they would not be battling to keep their top players.
As it is they just cannot compete when it comes to player contracts. A hitherto very reliable source in France has told me the James Hook deal at Perpignan guarantees him €700,000 a year after tax with performance bonuses on top of that - riches a boy from Port Talbot would not even have dared dream about even when he was first capped.
Luke Charteris, who was a revelation at the World Cup - powder-puff to power-house as a result of his summer conditioning - is also heading to Perpignan, Mike Phillips is loving the Basque experience in Bayonne and now it appears to be open season.
Gethin Jenkins is out of contract at the end of the season and I cannot see Cardiff Blues hanging on to him even though he turned down a £500,000 offer from Perpignan whilst Jamie Roberts has apparently been targeted by Toulouse as the replacement for Yannick Jauzion. He would certainly be in the same bracket as Hook and Blues chairman, Peter Thomas, has already made it clear they cannot compete in that sort of market.
My French source also tells me that some of the cannier clubs are thinking of making an early move for some of the Welsh youngsters who made such an impression in New Zealand. The World Cup is a great shop window and George North, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Scott Williams, Rhys Priestland, Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate - to name just a few, doubled their value during the tournament but would still be comparatively cheap.
It is all very well for Ospreys coach, Scott Johnson to call for action from the Welsh Rugby Union to stop Wales' top players moving abroad but they simply do not have the money to centrally contract the players and keep them at home.
New Zealand, as always, have been pragmatic allowing players to sign short-term contract that will get them back in good time to prepare for the next World Cup and they do have a buffer simply by being so far away.
It is obviously ideal when a coach is totally in control of his squad but that is impossible for Gatland so he has to be flexible. The priority for him has to be keeping this talented group of players available to play for Wales and it would be cutting of nose to spite face if he were to lose vital lynchpins because of an unworkable policy.
France is a very attractive proposition at the moment and it is not a question of players lacking loyalty to their homeland - professional sportsmen have always followed the money. The most important clause in any contract is therefore the guarantee that they will be available for all matches and preparation.
Jenkins is now being linked with Bath - I, for one, will be praying the deal goes through. He will be no further from the Wales training base than the Llanelli boys - in fact he'll probably continue to live in Wales.
It's a question of different solutions for different countries - just look how well Argentina have done with much greater difficulties. Just make sure you get those release clauses right!
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh