Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Money makes the rugby world go round

Cash flooding the game has turned professional rugby players into millionaires, writes Gregor Paul.
Dan Carter in action during the European Rugby Champions Cup. Photo / Getty Images
Dan Carter in action during the European Rugby Champions Cup. Photo / Getty Images

Rugby, without anyone realising it, has become a bit of a glamour sport. It remains in a different stratosphere to football and the main American codes but there is money washing about in rugby.

Good money, from sustainable sources, and the best players - be they from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, South Africa, England or France - are now commanding payments they could have once only dreamed of.

Comparing the best-paid players in the game now with those of five years ago shows how much richer the game has become.

It also shows how much bigger the international footprint has become, as rugby's richest player is now a little-known 29-year-old fullback from Japan.

In a few weeks, it could be David Pocock, if he agrees to join Wasps, and a few months after that, it will no doubt change again because so many clubs have the means to go a little crazy.

Not so long ago, a salary of $1million a season was considered silly money.

Five years ago, Jonny Wilkinson was easily the world's best-paid player, earning about $1m a season. Now, there is estimated to be as many as 20, if not more, players earning in excess of $1m a year.

Rather than being the number that separates the super elite from the elite, it is a benchmark figure that most senior internationals see as the starting point for negotiations.

That's because the super elite are now being paid closer to $3m a season. Daniel Carter is reportedly earning €1.8m a season at Racing 92 - a deal that, when he signed it in December 2014, made him the best-paid player in the world.

It was a quantum leap for rugby, way bigger than the other major deals for the top echelon which included Bryan Habana and Matt Giteau at Toulon, Sam Burgess at Bath and John Afoa at Gloucester

Carter, given his talent, achievements and marketability, was always likely to attract an enormous, unprecedented payment once he committed to the idea of leaving New Zealand.

It wasn't particularly surprising Racing cobbled together as much as they did, as Carter, even if he hadn't managed to return to his best form at last year's World Cup, was still going to put bums on seats, raise the profile of the club and help sell replica jerseys.

What is a surprise, though, is that he's been bumped off the No 1 spot on the rich list by Ayumu Goro-maru, who will play for the Reds before joining Toulon.

The Japanese test player will reportedly earn €2.4m this year. He's a handy enough player, but his price tag is largely driven by endorsement deals.

Goromaru's ability to sign such big deals in Australia and France signals how far rugby has travelled along the road from the obscure sport for public schoolboys to a mass market commodity. As further evidence of that, Wasps are trying to sign Pocock on a one-year deal that is considerably bigger than Goromaru's.

The Wallabies flanker is a world-class player, but even he must have been surprised to be valued as highly as he has. He made a huge impression at the World Cup and burrowed deep into the English sporting consciousness, especially given the way he played at Twickenham on the night the hosts were knocked out.

It might seem the Wasps offer is a bit out of kilter, but deals of this magnitude are likely to be seen more regularly.

Broadcast revenue in all the game's major club competitions has climbed sharply. The French Top 14 saw a near 40 per cent jump on their latest deal, which is worth about $120m a season.

In England, the arrival of BT Sport as a genuine rival to Sky, has seen the Aviva Premiership sell its four-year rights for $310 million - almost double what they were previously worth.

The second factor is that the salary cap in England has increased and, more importantly, clubs now have leeway to spend indiscriminately on two star players who sit outside the cap.

In France, there is no cap but there is a belligerence to not be outbid by English clubs for players they want.

The third factor is more subtle, but just as relevant: there are endorsement opportunities for international players in foreign markets. That much became apparent at the World Cup. The headline figure was that the Rugby Football Union made $30m profit after 98 per cent of the tickets were sold.

That was only half the story, however. What the official numbers don't reflect is the rising profile of various individuals and the wider corporate investment in rugby.

There were players endorsing gadgets, banks, cars, energy drinks . . . almost everything - suggesting that big companies now have faith that rugby has a mainstream following.

Best paid players in . . .


1. Ayumu Goromaru
(Reds and Toulon)


The 29-year-old Japanese fullback had a storming World Cup where his pace and agility was a major factor in their success.

2. Daniel Carter (Racing 92)


The world's best and arguably most marketable rugby player. At 34, he's still got what it takes - proven by the fact Racing are leading the French Top 14.

3. Matt Giteau (Toulon)


Inherited Wilkinson's pay packet essentially after the Englishman retired. The Australian midfielder can play 10 or 12 and kick goals.

4. Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon)


The Welsh fullback is a powerful runner and one of the world's most accurate goal-kickers.

5. Ma'a Nonu (Toulon)


The former All Blacks midfielder can break any defence and carts the ball up the middle of the field with unfailing physicality.

2016 continued

6. Johnny Sexton (Leinster) $1m

The Irish first-five didn't settle in Paris and shifted back to Ireland and his beloved Leinster.

7. Charles Piutau (Ulster) $1m

The former All Blacks and Blues player stunned New Zealand Rugby a year ago when he rejected an offer to stay. Comfortable at fullback and wing, and just 24, he is a dynamic addition to any backline.

8. Bryan Habana (Toulon) $980,000

The Springbok wing continues to score tries and keep himself in top condition, which is why he remains such a threat.

9. Colin Slade (Pau) $950,000

The former All Black showed in his last few years his incredible versatility and temperament to win games. Can kick goals, play across the backline and hurt teams with his running game from No 10.

10. Manu Tuilagi (Leicester) $900,000

The bruising England midfielder was in high demand when he came off contract recently. Leicester, determined not to lose his running power, broke the bank to keep him.


1. Jonny Wilkinson


Metronomic goal-kicking first-five with the composure and experience to run any game plan.

2. Johnny Sexton
(Racing Metro)


Emerging first-five with proven test experience and accurate goal-kicking.

3. Bryan Habana


One of the best finishers in world rugby with the all-round skills to contribute to any attacking plan.

4. Morgan Parra (Clermont)


A versatile playmaker who can operate at halfback or first-five. Another who can kick goals and ignite counter-attacks.

5. Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse)


Former French captain who was inspirational. Had a huge workrate, made enormous and effective tackles and lifted those around him to different levels.

Best paid players in NZ

1. Kieran Read

The All Blacks captain is the world's best No 8 and will be a huge influence on a relatively young group of All Blacks.

2. Brodie Retallick

The world's best lock was attracting plenty of interest last year but was always keen to stay. NZR made it clear they valued him highly and saw him as a rock in the All Blacks pack through to 2019.

3. Julian Savea

Like Retallick, he was off contract last year and NZR wanted to put a deal on the
table that was good enough to lock him in for the long term.

4. Sam Whitelock


The senior lock in New Zealand and he's still in his mid-20s. Has won two World Cups and is only getting better.

5. Jerome Kaino


The world's most destructive blindside is leaner and fitter than ever and showed at the World Cup there is plenty left in his tank.

- Herald on Sunday

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