Many big names have agreed to move on to new clubs when current deals expire, but for some there are renegotiations or new contracts to seek. Here's how some are handling the market during a pandemic

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Anatomy of a rugby transfer during Covid-19 crisis

THE WAY player moves have always worked is pretty set in stone. As one prominant European agent, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells Rugby World: “Over the summer we’d be putting together our list of clients that are off contract the following June and they will be sent off to European clubs, usually in August and September.

“At the start of the season, the clubs will also come to us wanting to talk about the extension of some key players and wanting to plan their budget. Those key players could be their star players, good young players they want to tie down for the longer term or players that a club feel are good value for their squad and important in balancing their budget.

“Clubs may well try and extend those players earlier and stop them from getting to the last year of their deal. Some clubs, if they have the financial scope, will offer a salary uplift for the last year of a player’s contract to try and incentivise them to sign before going to market.

“You don’t often see high-value external deals being formally completed in September. There’s not really that much external recruitment that gets completed before late October on the whole.”

Our agent points out that the market value in November could be very different next March, but by and large you can sense where a player sits in the strata of stars; you can re-evaluate as the season pushes on, but with well-known talents you can have plenty of dialogue.

In England, technically you cannot speak to another club before the first of January – which is why you do not see memes and social media anouncements about new signings until the new year of a season – but our agent adds: “The reality is that clubs cannot often wait until 1 January. They want to finalise their playing roster as soon as possible: either to sign other players if they miss out on an extension/target, or know that the money is spent when trying to finalise other positions.”

Some out there would like to change this so it follows the French model. Across the Channel, you can talk openly from 12 months out of your contract’s end.

But with the above, we are talking about nailed-on stars; big names with high demand at home and afar, and then the club stalwarts who are a vital part of the coach’s plans and a crowd favourite. Even when the economy is strong and live sports roam free, the season will be well-advanced when some veteran players and solid squad men are waiting for a deal.

The wait can be frustrating. In our special report on the Life of a Journeyman, agent Ali Smith told us of contracts for veterans: “What’s frustrating for players and what we try to educate them on is that sometimes someone else must make a decision for them to get a contract. You might tell a player a club doesn’t want a lock, then a month later one of theirs retires because of injury. Things change.”

But we are in uncertain times. According to many, the market in France is transforming. There is no safety net in lower leagues.

As our agent says: “The middle of the sport has been squeezed for a while. The days of the relatively expensive journeyman pro who was a good squad player are almost gone because the clubs just can’t afford them – they need to rely on their academies to produce young players, starting out on their pro careers who are a cheaper cost, to balance their budgets.”

New contracts for players moving club will kick in at the start of July, regardless of whether the old season has concluded, and this creates a vast grey area, riddled with dangers. Setting aside how to traverse the Premiership registration window (which will reopen after 1 July),  would it be in a player’s interest to go back to their old club on loan and risk injury? Agents asked about this here say they would advise players against a return to the club they played for earlier in the season.

But that is done deals. Now we are all housebound, other action has frozen.

One agent describes a slow market, with so many waiting for certainty on when play can resume in England, calling this time “boring!”. In Major League Rugby some are bullish, with one contact saying they look forward to the signing window opening in May. It is expected the US league will soon increase the number of foreign players allowed in a squad.

Another agent explains that while some French clubs typically wait until very late in the season to finalise signings anyway – when they know who is going into the ProD2 and who will be a Top 14 side – with sponsorship hit by the current crisis and teams having to pick and choose, it is now much more of a buyer’s market.

“In New Zealand there’s a contract freeze on,” explains Simon Porter of the NZ-based Halo Sport agency. “They’re not signing any contracts. They’re honouring any existing offers but then not signing any new deals.

“I think everyone understands and wants to co-operate, no one wants to make knee-jerk decisions. And there’s a real sense of ‘we’re in this together’. That’s people being fairly understanding around the issues of pay freezes or pay cuts. But where it is difficult is for the guys who are off-contract.

“No one’s really recruiting – there are still some markets that are talking, but talking rather than putting contracts or offers down…”

Which markets?

“Japan,” Porter replies.

Anatomy of a rugby transfer during Covid-19

Slowing market? Japan has attracted foreign stars like Christian Leali’ifano (Getty Images)

“They are a little bit behind, only just going into lockdown this week. And remember the Japanese teams are part of massive organisations, so are a little bit more insulated. Their business models are completely and utterly different from professional clubs around the world. So there is still some activity, but even that has slowed up in the last couple of weeks.

“It’s all a bit of wait and see and I think the biggest anxiety players have, and as an agent I have, is border restrictions moving forward: what are they going to mean? Are people going to be able to fly around, will you have to quarantine for two weeks when you step off a plane? What will that mean for competitions and individuals?”

Porter reiterates that there is a current sense of shared responsibility, and while rumours circulate that some have had contract offers pulled, Porter is quick to assure us that offers already put on the table are being honoured – but there is no negotiating at this time.

He also foresees a time when pragmatism will come in when looking at additional squad players. He suggests that if, say, a Japanese team wanted three foreign players (a ten, a six and a 14), they may be prudent and opt for one signing in the area of greatest need.

Another agent says they can see this coming in France, too, particularly with the clubs who have left things late, waiting to see how the promotion-relegation fight pans out at the same time as calculating what the loss of sponsorship and gate receipts means for their budgets.

This agent hypothesises that we could see more teams waiting until their need is greatest, perhaps when a current squad member goes down hurt, to sign a back-up – which could spell purgatory for those anxious off-contract players waiting to see if they can get a new deal.

Porter adds: “I think in France it’ll accelerate. It’s getting tougher and tougher to get foreign, non-JIFF players into France anyway. So this is just going to exacerbate that.”

Anatomy of a rugby transfer during Covid-19

Going up: Sintu Manjezi for the Cheetahs (Inpho/Tommy Dickson)

There is a sense that we could see an uptick in older players calling it a day rather than waiting and waiting for a deal that does not come, or the ones that would previously have been unthinkable. Others suggest it’s a case of ‘better the devil you know’.

Cheetahs lock Sintu Manjezi will be off-contract in October.

“With communicating through my agent this period has been very difficult because of how clubs have been financially restricted, not being able to play games and sponsorships being poor,” the 25-year-old tells us. “If you’re in a position like mine, with your contract coming to an end, it’s a tough position to be in. Hopefully working with my agent we’ll find something.

“If a club wants to keep you, the increase (in salary) you are looking to get might not be as much as what you expect.”

In previous seasons, initial deals may have not been too attractive. But in the current climate, those first offers can be seen as a refuge.

Talking further on the landscape, Manjezi says: “For players coming to the end of their contract, looking to go overseas, those clubs are in a difficult position now and those negotiations have either ended or those European clubs are not in the position they were before Covid-19.

“A lot of players have realised the options have become very limited. I’ve heard that a few players have been forced into making a decision early, in terms of their future.

Because there’s a lot of uncertainty and if you come to the end of your contract, you don’t want a situation where a club offers a contract, you wait it out and you’re unable to get a contract because the financial situation then changes at the club and they can move forward without you. So I think a lot of players have either signed or will be signed soon.”

It’s a competitive market in South Africa, with squad sizes shrinking and budgets being slashed. So when offered a deal, players now are more likely to take it.

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