Nice Work If You Can Get It

December 21, 2016

In the UK, we are slightly obsessed with what other people get paid, and not necessarily in a good way. There is an underlying culture of envy and resentment towards those on big salaries, and the default reaction to discovering that someone earns over a certain threshold is that they don’t deserve it, can’t deserve it.

Bankers have been the main offenders for the past decade, but the attitude can extend to doctors (ie the people in charge of keeping you alive) and MPs (ie the dudes in charge of the people in charge of keeping you alive. And, nominally at least, everything else)

Entrepreneurs are generally exempt from scorn, partly as they are rightly seen as wealth generators and partly because we tend to regard the successful ones as some strange superior species, endowed with mystical powers the rest of us can’t fathom.

But otherwise we fight to escape the notion that a salaried employee who gets a decent whack at the end of the month is somehow stealing from the rest of us.

With this kind of dogma so ingrained, it’s no surprise that it extends to those at the top end of sport. When we get wind of what the highest paid professional sports men and women are on, there is maybe more envy than resentment at work, as most of us would give out right nut to be in the same position.

But what are seen as inflated wages are also used as a very large stick to beat the pros with, even those who play for our home team. The millionaires of football are the most obvious target, but some of the salaries in rugby, particularly in the northern hemisphere, are getting to levels where supporters will feel justified in using them as extra ammunition when criticising underperforming teams or individuals.

This week, there was a predictably incredulous/outraged response from some fans as the Daily Mail published the supposed ten top earners in the Premiership. Here is their list:

1.Manu Tuilagi £425,000 (Image Source:

2.Louis Picamoles £420,000

3.John Afoa £390,000

4.Mike Brown £320,000

5.Chris Robshaw £320,000

6.Danny Care £320,000

7.Danny Cipriani £310,000

8.George North £300,000

9.Joe Launchbury £300,000

10.Chris Ashton £295,000

Frankly, you should always, always take the accuracy of these sort of figures with a fistful of salt - how on earth do they get hold of them, for a start?

But in this case, other than the unlikely sounding Tuilagi number, and perhaps the 420K for Louis Picamoles, these amounts probably aren’t too far off the mark.

These are huge sums of money by anybody’s measure, but as some pointed out there are plenty of footballers who take home similar wedge once a fortnight.

Rugby is not in the same financial universe.

The majority of the teams in the English Premiership are ran by very shrewd operators with a close eye on their bottom line. With increased revenue from gates and sponsorship and the safety net of BT Sport’s cash, whilst not all are in the black, owning a club is no longer the money pit it was at the start of professionalism.

Ultimately, the product is pretty good, and the owners realise that their own product is dependent on hanging on to their best players. So they stump up, and everyone is happy. Market forces, innit?

Even so, there can’t be a professional rugger player who hasn’t at some point read about some world class athlete or swimmer having to struggle by on their lottery grant and realised how financially fortunate they are to have ended up being half-decent at running into people.

It might just be me, but I always felt an element of guilt that so many in rugby are so well paid compared to other sports.

We are talking 40 odd guys per club getting decent money for playing a sport in which, in some positions, you can get by with the slimmest amount of natural sporting talent.

I would always think about the 200th best golfer or tennis player in the world, picking up a pittance in prize money as he slogged his way round the globe. Top-level rugby is uniquely brutal on the body, but there is no doubt that in certain respects things are handed to us on a plate.

Returning to the Daily Mail’s list, what I found surprising were not the figures but rather the players who were absent from the top ten.

What is particularly striking is that there is only one fly half on there, i.e. Danny Cipriani. If I were Owen Farrell, George Ford, Steven Myler, Gareth Steenson or Nick Evans, I would be having a serious word with my agent.

I’m sure a few of them are not far off that £300,000 mark, which seems to be a bit of a magic number, but still; there is no one more vital to a team than a game-managing, goal-kicking stand off, and you would expect that to be reflected in their remuneration.

Elsewhere, the list is made up of top England internationals like Chris Robshaw, Joe Launchbury and Mike Brown, and for each you would have to say fair enough, incredible players.

Similarly you can’t argue with George North or Chris Ashton’s (right) presence on there, as they are two of the world’s best providers of five pointers.

Another slight surprise is that only one prop, John Afoa, earns a spot (although admittedly he’s not doing too badly on 390 grand).

It has long been said that a good tighthead can name his price, and nowhere more so than in the Premiership, where a penalty-winning scrum is vital to success. So perhaps their lack of representation is down to the absence of truly outstanding dominant number threes doing the rounds - and also shows why Edinburgh will be crapping themselves when the time comes to renegotiate WP Nel’s contract!

Overall, it looks like salaries in rugby are only going one way.

Also, in the case of certain big names, English clubs are managing to compete with the lure of France and hang on to their best players.

Nonetheless, there still seems to be more money floating about in the French system in general, and it may be that there are more opportunities for decent journeymen players to earn a good living over there.

I remember speaking to one ex-teammate who had moved to a club at the bottom of Pro D2 because he had been offered 10000 euros per month (they think in monthly figures over there), plus a free flat and car. Not bad, and certainly a lot more than he’d have been getting at the bottom of the English Championship.

And definitely more that that 200th ranked tennis player.

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