Every now and then, something is said in a press conference that immediately breaks free of the standard cliché and routine.
The current fuss about releasing Super 14 players to their clubs adds to the sense that things aren’t quite what they seem to be.
Players are nominally ‘available’ to play, but there are circumstances that prevent them from appearing in their club colours. I have not seen it discussed here, but it does not seem too far-fetched to suggest that in some cases player’s agents may have as much to do with who shows up where as do Super 14 coaches and team medical staff.
There are several very compelling factors to suggest that an agent would try to influence the process.
The overriding and most obvious of these is the agent’s personal stake in the player’s financial future. A healthy player on the way up (outside of the current Wallaby squad) will show up regularly and frequently to press his case. Once in the top tier, the incentive to risk exposure, not to injury but to being shown up by a lesser known opponent, drops measurably.
While this may sound somewhat implausible to some, in real terms this is much more of a risk than a physical injury.
Precisely because it is possible to insure against physical injury and financial losses related to injury – even career ending injury.
Actuaries can handle that sort of proposition and write insurance. Financial loss associated with being outplayed is an entirely different category of exotica and falls into the realm of uncertainty (no history,no statistics, no insurance).
While this phenomenon undoubtedly existed in a minor way back through sports history, the emergence of an upper tier of professional players and more significantly professional player management has served to bring the issue to a ‘professional’ level.
For rugby, the professional era brought with it acknowledgment of the existence of pragmatic (cynical?) ‘professional fouls’ during a match. Those are now dealt with by handing out yellow and red cards.
These sanctions dramatically increase the impact of what are often otherwise considered minor infractions.
The idea that professional rugby players might avoid club competition may seem odd but it has significant precedent in other sports.
Boxers won’t box, runners won’t run if there is a chance that losing cannot be rationalized successfully. The phenomenon should not be discounted in the rugby context.
If Cross is outplayed by Mortlock in a Super 14 match it isn’t the end of the world. If Cross is outplayed by Unknown in a club match, eyebrows are raised and notes are taken. Super 14, ARU, and lucrative overseas prospects in Wallaby retirement are all impacted.
Believe what you like.
The financial incentive that matters is in place and its impact cannot be minimized. Addressing this issue isn’t as simple as yellow and red cards. If there are no institutional checks to mitigate this, it will progressively (further) undermine both the quality of club competition and the Wallabies.
While not the intent, this is another argument in favor of an all-in domestic competition