Mercenaries, businesses and mutual agreements: The professional rugby landscape

There’s been a lot of player movement over the last 12 months, something we’ve become accustomed to with both rugby union and professional sports in general. Some of the switches we’ve seen occur wouldn’t have been thought possible this time last year.

Having seen what has occurred, it had me remembering a Mad Monday for the Queensland Reds a good few years back. We were sitting around in some pub in Brisbane having a few beers when the subject turned to allegiance and what other teams you could or definitely couldn’t see yourself playing at.

With such a young squad of Queenslanders at the Reds who had been born and grew up in the state, many had the ambition of one day playing for the Reds, which most of them succeeded in doing. They had never even entertained the idea of playing for a rival province, and why would they?

This must have been around 2012 when we were in a successful little period (one which should have been a lot more successful) and, as promising young players, they had it all in front of them. The Reds were keen to re-sign the majority of them, as you do when the team is successful and looking oh so promising for a good few years to come.

At this stage, we were probably well and truly into the rum and diet cokes, and big Rob Simmons had a crack at me after I wouldn’t pledge loyalty solely to the Reds. Big Simmo is a diehard Queenslander, as so many are when they’re born and bred north of the Tweed. I reckon there might even be a subject at primary school for Queenslanders where they instil some form of patriotism into the young ones, although Simmo’s parents are actually from Wellington, NSW (go the Redbacks!).

Rob wasn’t at all aggressive but he was genuinely having a go at me after I wouldn’t rule out ever playing for any other team, including the Waratahs who had sent me packing only a couple of years earlier.

But I’d been around a bit longer than a lot of these blokes and, even though we’d had success and there was no reason we wouldn’t go on to achieve a great deal more, I realised it was still a business. That’s what professional sports is in today’s environment.

I just refused to rule any possible option out after my experience in the professional rugby environment, a real ‘never say never’ approach. I had absolutely no reason to want to leave the Reds, especially at the time of this conversation – I loved living in Brissy, playing for the Reds and pretty much anything else to do with the city, state and team at the time.

But I was also a realist. Big Simmo just couldn’t fathom this. He was a die-hard, through-and-through Queenslander. He no doubt still is.

Simmo isn’t the only one who I recall ruling out the possibility of playing for a rival only to find themselves since having done so.

I’m not writing this to scare off young players and convince them to not be loyal. There’s something romantic about playing at the one club. I love seeing blokes start and finish up at the same place, it restores the notion that there is loyalty and a stronger relationship between both parties, and it’s great for the fans and the game.

I admire that, although it’s unfortunately getting much rarer.

Some blokes can’t fathom going up against the club they have always played with. They still have that burning ambition to play at a high level even as they get older, just not against the only team they’ve ever known.

Greg Holmes and Dave Dennis are both at Exeter Chiefs, and big James ‘Kevvie’ Horwill is at Harlequins. Hopefully these guys will remain at those UK clubs and finish off their careers over there. They’re still loyal yet they get the best of both worlds by never having to play against the club they have such a deep connection with. There’s something special about that.

Obviously, this scenario is not offered to everyone.

So often club legends don’t go out on their own terms. Look at Robbie Farah, David Peachey and Matt Burke, just to name a few.

But it goes both ways. So often we see players leave a club for what’s in the best interests of them and their family. And why shouldn’t they? Why should we begrudge them for making that decision? It might be for money, the security of a longer contract, to be closer to their family, with an eye on life after rugby, or moving overseas to experience a new culture, but all are valid arguments.

Then there are the ‘mutual agreements’. This is often referred to as loyalty, in that both parties have simply come to an agreement.

This is where you do see one player staying at the same club and finishing off their career there. Both parties are happy with the terms every time a contract has been up for extension or renewal. As the career goes on, especially in Super Rugby, the mutual agreements become far less likely.

When both parties can’t come to a mutual agreement, it’s generally the player (although not always) who cops the flak for how things have unfolded. The public, oblivious to what goes on and how it works, almost always faithfully stay with their club.

Players don’t have the platform to speak out. Even if they do, that can be seen as a deterrent to organisations who don’t want players to ruffle feathers. Teams are often wary of a player who speaks his mind and goes against the grain. Sometimes for very good reason, too. Culture and unity are key components to success, so you don’t want to disrupt this.

The player doesn’t have a media release and his or her words are lost, never able to get across their side of the story. It will seem unfair, especially as it’s always sports organisations telling their side of the story, rarely the other way around. Public backlash can be brutal and has even made players renege on their contracts.

Consider this. When Robbie Farah was moved on from the Tigers, how many Wests supporters ended up going for Souths? Hardly any. It’s just the reality. The players at clubs come and go, but the clubs themselves will almost always be there. Only rarely are there cases like those of the Force or my beloved North Sydney Bears.

I loved Jason Taylor when he played for the Bears. When they were unfairly kicked out of the competition and he moved to the Eels, I followed him but didn’t even consider following the Eels. I had the emotional attachment to the club, not the individual player.

Players can be resentful towards teams that have let them go, especially when those franchises paint themselves through their press releases as totally innocent and free of any wrongdoing. But a player and fan should never hold it against the organisation. Why? Organisations simply don’t make decisions, individuals within organisations do.

Hopefully, the public will appreciate this insight and it will give them a better understanding into how it all works. Maybe it’s something they hadn’t considered before. I certainly hope it’s a new perspective for most fans.

Going back to big Simmo, I hope this change of scene will rejuvenate him and get him back to playing at his best. He’s the most well-rounded second rower I’ve played with and I’ve played with a plenty of good ones. He can hit, run a good line (and even kick), is quick and fit, knows his lineouts inside out and demands very high standards of those around him.

For the benefit of the Waratahs and Australian rugby, I hope he re-establishes himself as the dominant force he can be.

For those younger professional athletes or those with playing ambitions, I have written this not to scare you, but simply to inform you of what many other young pro sportsmen and women are oblivious to, just like I once was.

If this sounds too disheartening, then maybe it’s best you don’t get involved. Players are like stud bulls, they all have their price, but at the end of the day, even the best can find themselves at the market.

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