Jack O’Toole argues that New Zealand star Ma’a Nonu should not be the Premiership’s first £1 million player.
“When Trevor Francis became the first British player to break the seven-figure barrier, 30 years ago on Monday, it felt like the sporting equivalent of putting a man on the Moon,” wrote The Telegraph’s Simon Briggs of football’s first million pound player Trevor Francis in February 2009.
“Their [Nottingham Forest] initial outlay of £950,000 spiralled to £1.18 million with the addition of VAT and other sundries, though [manager] Brian Clough always claimed that the real figure was £999,999, out of concern for his new signing’s state of mind.
“He was right to be worried: Francis is still remembered as the man who went for a million, yet never quite lived up to his billing.”
Making big money signings is a risky business in sport. There is generally a lot more to lose than gain when spending millions of pounds on a professional athlete, so sporting organisations have to naturally be careful in which athletes they choose to award millions of pounds to.
When former England captain David Beckham signed for the LA Galaxy in 2007 he wasn’t the same player he was when he left Manchester United for Real Madrid four years earlier. By 2007, Beckham had rescinded the English captaincy, he was dropped by England boss Steve McClaren and although he may not have been at the peak of his powers, he still helped Real Madrid to a La Liga title.
He also had a desire to make a difference, particularly in the United States where he said (via The Guardian) before his move:
“I don’t want to go out to America at 34 years old and people be turning round saying, ‘Well he’s only going there to get the money’.
“I’ve enjoyed my time in Spain, it’s been an incredible experience for me and the family. But I think another challenge has come up and I think it’s the right time for us to do it. Soccer is huge all around the world except in America and that’s where I want to make a difference.”
Beckham made one hell of a difference and helped raise the financial clout and profile of a league that had tried and failed with similar investments in the past, with both Pele and former England World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore both failing to move the needle for football in America like Beckham did.
So what category does All Blacks legend Ma’a Nonu fall into? Is he Beckham, Moore, Pele or Francis?
The 34-year-old Wellington native has been the subject of intense interest from English billionaire Steve Lansdown, who is the owner of Premiership Rugby side Bristol.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Lansdown said that “of course we’d like to attract someone like Nonu,” and ‘I’m sure the first million-pound player isn’t that far away.”
Lansdown wouldn’t exclusively link the two together but major news outlets from around the world have, and as a result, have created intrigue once again into the growing finances of professional rugby.
— Giles Mole (@molesport) September 2, 2016
The current Premiership broadcasting deal is believed to be a significant improvement on the £152 million four-year deal Premiership Rugby signed with BT Sport in 2012. Details regarding the financial information of the deal have been scarce, with the line “it is understood the new contract will offer a significant increase” on the previous deal the standard line that is being thrown around to describe the deal’s finances.
But in addition to a new tv deal that will see BT Sport show Premiership Rugby exclusively until 2021, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) also agreed on a eight-year deal in July worth over £200 million, which will see a guaranteed amount of £112 million split between the clubs across the first four years, with that figure potentially rising for the second four-year period depending on how the teams perform.
The respective deals with BT Sport and the RFU have made English clubs a power player in European club rugby, and just like English football had Trevor Francis in 1979, English rugby will inevitably soon have its first million-pound player. But will, or should, that player be Nonu?
The World Cup winner and 103-cap veteran is one of the most accomplished centres in rugby history, and is currently the fourth highest paid player in world rugby with Toulon paying the New Zealander a reported £600,000-a-season to ply his trade in the south of France, but he’s not the player to break the £1 million-a-season barrier in English rugby.
Currently, Dan Carter is the only player in world rugby on more than £1 million-a-season, with Top 14 champions Racing Metro paying the former All Blacks fly-half £1.3 million per season to play in Paris. Carter was 32 years old when he opted to sign for Racing and would go on to win the IRB World Player Of The Year award the following season, as well as being named Man of the Match in Racing’s first Top 14 championship win over Toulon in Barcelona back in May.
Carter scored 15 points in the historic win to cap off a remarkable debut season in Paris, but his compatriot Nonu had a less than stellar introduction to the Top 14, scoring just four tries in 20 appearances for the French giants last year.
The formidable centre was admittedly “average” last season by his own account, telling Rugby Heaven earlier this year that “I can’t speak for the team, I can only speak for myself but I’m not happy with my performances, they’re pretty average at the moment.”
Nonu’s average displays represent where he is in his career at the moment. He’s 34 years old with over a decade’s worth of international rugby behind him. The Rongotai College product was hugely influential in both of New Zealand’s last two World Cup wins and he was particularly unlucky not to be awarded with the World Player of the Year award in 2011, after a stellar World Cup on home soil. But at this stage of his career, Nonu is not the player to break the million pound barrier in England.
That barrier will be broken, and it could be within the next season or two, but Nonu won’t be the player to do it. As to what player could, realistically it’s going to have to be player that is not only worth the investment, but is also willing to make the move. Wallabies flanker David Pocock was strongly linked with a move to Wasps back in February for in excess of £1 million per season, but the Brumbies backrower opted to stay in Australia instead, re-signing with the Brumbies and the ARU for another three years, which also involves a personal sabbatical from rugby.
Current All Blacks Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea and Brodie Retallick would all be possible contenders to sign a £1 million contract in England, but one would have to imagine that New Zealand Rugby would make it a primary objective to ensure that those players don’t contemplate a switch to the northern hemisphere any time soon.
Linking those players to England is nothing more than an example at this stage, but they are the the type of players that you need to break that £1 million pound barrier. The potential players need to be among the best, if not the best, at their position in the world. They need to be in the prime of their careers, they need to move into the right environment, and they have to be willing to make the move, and like Beckham, willing to make a difference.
The free-market will sometimes disregard these factors but for a move of that magnitude to make sense, the criteria needs to be satisfied, otherwise you run the risk of having the next Trevor Francis.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena