Foreign Invasion or Inspiration?
Why foreign players are essential to the game
By Olly Barkley, 5 August 2011
With the World Cup on our door step and soon to be banging hard on our window pane, the time has come for those plying their trade on foreign soil to step lucratively back into the shop window. While the financial system is in crisis all over the globe, the pound (and the euro) still offer a healthy exchange for the rand and the Aussie and New Zealand dollars, opening the door for players in these countries to cash in while their star is at its highest.
Why after a World Cup though? Why not make hay while the sun shines and maximise their income by leaving one or maybe two years earlier? The World Cup is a watershed moment for many players for two different reasons. Fringe international players will target a World Cup as their potential breakthrough year, with a large squad being assembled, it can provide outside players with an opportunity to impress over a long pre-season period where training squads can be as large as sixty. For seasoned, experienced, internationals who can pretty much smack their mortgage on the fact that they'll be selected, it's a time to focus all attention on participating or winning a World Cup (let's be upfront about this, it depends on which nation you play for) and then move on afterwards, with priorities shifting somewhat.
Pound, euro or yen. That's what the shift in priority is about, largely. Of course, quality of life and experiencing alternative cultures with loved ones is another swaying factor, but these are made more appealing by the wages that high profile, overseas international players can demand these days.
Each country has its benefits for your fifty-capper. The euro offers reduced tax benefits and the option of hitting the beach in between training sessions (see my first article). Sweet. Hit Japan if their alternative pay structure, ten game season and transfer of domestic debt to their ridiculously low rates is your thing. Nice one Hask'. Those coming to England will usually seek a more professional environment, structured game plan and will not mind employing an umbrella for nine months of the year. Either way, you are handsomely rewarded for your overseas relocation.
So it's a winner for the All Black, the Springbok and the Wallaby but how does the influx of foreign players affect our game, our developing talent and our domestic league?
There's no doubting that buying in a superstar has the potential to immediately fill a hole or problem position. Age dependant, it can also be a good long-term option if that player has announced his international retirement or, in contractual terms, is willing to pledge his long-term commitment to the club. But for the promising twenty one year old who has shown an ability to compete and challenge at Premiership level, this presents a rather large hurdle. With winning now crucial on every single level within rugby (gate sales, retaining commercial sponsors, hospitality revenue, attracting new players and keeping existing ones, the list goes on) there is every chance the game time and consequently development of the youngster in question will be halted. The result, a temporary/permanent loss of motivation or in extreme cases a relocation to another club.
There is also the issue of the wage that these players can demand. With £350,000 plus not being a rare demand for seasoned Tri-Nation players, it begs the question: Would the squad benefit more from three quality English players who they have a higher chance of keeping in two years time when his contract is up? I don't know the answer to this question and in truth nor will the Director of Rugby at the time of purchase. The power of hindsight remains the most valuable and unattainable tool in business.
But surely they must be able to offer something or they wouldn't be here? Of course they do and I for one am of the thinking that overseas invasions can offer prime overseas inspiration. First of all there is what the player can offer to the game. Think Pat Lam back in the day, Tuigamala at Newcastle or more recently Nick Evans tearing the Premiership up on a regular basis down in Twickenham. The contribution to their teams is unquestionable. Now think of the effect these players have had on those around them, not only on the pitch but off it as well. Butch James who has sadly just left Bath, along with Micheal Classens, helped to transform our team from a side lost in it's quest for a playing identity to one of the most dangerous in the Premiership. To this day, sides do not like playing against us for our unpredictability and these two have been at the forefront of this transformation.
Foreign stars can leave a lasting impression on young players, as well as the financial stability of rugby.
Throw in my old favourite, commercial impact on gate sales, attracting new sponsors and community interest and you have a pretty strong case for dipping into the pockets for overseas talent.
With every high-end purchase though, comes a gamble. You're parting with a lot of money, representing a higher risk, but these are risks worth taking. With the introduction of one marquee player per squad allowing sides to pay one player outside of the wage cap, the risk placed on the balance of the squad, is lowered significantly.
For the direct impact they can have not only on the quality we see out on the field but also the ripple of inspiration they can spread throughout the squad (young players in particular) these are purchases that must become essentials, not luxuries, if our league and the players within are truly to flourish.