Beneath the household names in elite rugby lies a huge number of fine professionals making a living off the world game. RW salutes those who are hustling from job to job. This feature first appeared in the magazine in June
The life of a Journeyman – a Rugby World special report
“I GOT called Pete Tong once because I’ve played in more clubs than him,” says Paul Doran Jones. Now self-employed, renovating property as well as playing for Rosslyn Park, the prop had a career that took him through Leinster, King Country in New Zealand, London Welsh, Gloucester, Northampton, Harlequins and Wasps, as well as repping England six times. For some, he is the quintessential ‘journeyman’.
Yet he says on moving clubs: “They were decisions that enriched me as a person. I have seen different clubs, different coaches, different people, and that is what I thrive on. Sometimes there are financial or other incentives, but that’s what drives me. I get stagnant very quickly, so I like to change things up. I make no apologies for that.”
In our game we bury one-club players under praise while at the same time devouring the transfer news about the biggest Test stars. But there is a whole other world out there, of levels, nations and cultures we may know little about.
On the dawn of professionalism, John Daniell wrote in his book Confessions of a Rugby Mercenary: “The lot of a rugby mercenary is hard to beat.” But how do today’s journeymen see it? Some move for money, others for life experiences, and many more as it is the only way to find a job. We meet a few characters…
It is amazing how two contrasting routes can lead vastly different people to the same place. For Irish tighthead Jamie Hagan and English fly-half Sam Katz, their paths to Béziers in the ProD2 differ greatly.
Hagan came through the Irish elite system, operating at Leinster on three separate occasions, winning silverware, powering Connacht, winning a single Ireland cap and even playing Super Rugby for Melbourne Rebels. But throughout his time at big teams, fate often stepped in; things would turn out differently than he would have initially envisaged. Not that the philosophical prop is bitter about things – far from it. He is just aware that life is full of quirks.
Giving one example, he says: “During my second stint at Leinster, Michael Bent came in and played ahead of me. I was dropped back to third-choice tighthead. Then London Irish signed me (for the following season). It’s a funny thing but when I’d signed, it felt like there was no pressure and I played unbelievably well for Leinster.
“I suppose I got the rub of the green with injuries to others. I played when we won the Amlin Cup and I started more. I remember Joe Schmidt asked in March if I’d signed for Irish. He said, ‘Maybe we’ll see if we can get you out of that’.”
Nothing ever came from that chat and Hagan moved to the English Premiership. At 25 years old and after five years in the Irish elite game, he was ready for a change. Today he ponders if perhaps he was hasty, but adds even-handedly: “There are definitely those sliding doors moments for everyone.”
Which leads to the prop’s next example. His time at Irish was not great. A regime change brought in new management, who Hagan feels just did not rate him, even after a third spell back at Leinster on loan. He left his contract early but on the horizon was yet another superb opportunity, this time Down Under.
“I’d finished at Irish but I was still so hungry to play and a friend was working with the Rebels, who were looking for a tighthead,” Hagan recalls. “At 18 or 19 that was my Friday morning: watching my favourite players in Super Rugby. Irish guys don’t play Super Rugby! This was surreal, like signing for Man United!
“But then two games into the Super Rugby season, my now wife (Sinead) found a tumour in her neck. That was devastating. It went on for the majority of the season – I was playing and training but I was in a very bad place. The Rebels team doctor knew about the situation but that was it, no one else did.
“I was in such a bad way with lots of different things going on and that was it: my contract there finished early.”
Sinead made a full recovery but Hagan has no problem admitting he fell out of love with rugby. The pair prepared to find jobs in Oz, start new lives. But then the chance to sign for a second-tier French side as a medical joker came up.
It is in France that Hagan believes he has rekindled his affection for the sport – even if another coaching regime change swiftly after his signing made him wonder if a brick had been put through those sliding doors. However, he’s just enjoyed his third season with the French outfit.
It’s here his path crossed with Katz.
“My journey is very different to Jamie’s,” says the fly-half, who grew up with a football family and was driven towards academia. He studied for an international business degree while leading the Loughborough University rugby team’s attack. After a year working in the City of London as part of his course, Katz solidified his dream to pursue rugby. No chances in England stood out, so he set course for adventure. He went to Spain.
“I thought I’d feel it out but it was an amazing couple of seasons there,” Katz says of his time with El Salvador, in Valladolid. “In our second year we did the league-and-cup double and for the final of the Copa del Rey in 2016 they filled a 26,000-seater stadium. The King of Spain came out and we managed to win it. The atmosphere was rocking and up until that point I’d never had an experience like that.”
Katz’s confidence was high. He had the chance to qualify for Spain if he stayed on. He’d met his wife there. However, something was nagging at him to take another risk, so he moved on again.
After a stint with Jersey, Katz shifted to France to play for freshly promoted Massy in the ProD2. He liked the league, felt he could improve there. A season later he landed with Béziers.
The 28-year-old admits the nomadic life can be unpredictable and tough on personal relationships. His wife’s support through each move has been precious.
For Hagan, a chance to settle, pass on advice to young players and earn good money for his family has been uplifting.
Katz has unwavering belief in his ability. He is switching club again and will be in Italy next season, but he hits on a thought that applies to all players moving: “If you want to earn a living from the sport and be abroad, you have got to be hard as nails about it.”
TAKING THE LEAP
DORAN JONES went down the academic route, too, but he twinned his medicinal chemistry degree at Trinity College with time at Leinster. And while local kids could live at home and pocket around €3,600 a year, the prop toiled to get by on such a meagre starter wage.
He jokes about how coaches couldn’t understand why he couldn’t gain weight – before discovering he was running rickshaws at night to make extra cash. But things got harder when his time at uni, and the associated bursary, ended.
He tried to talk coach Michael Cheika into investing in him, explaining that he could not afford to live in expensive Dublin. “What I hadn’t told him was that I’d run out of money and the night before I had to go down the local supermarket and steal my tea,” he reveals. “I was there on my own, no cash, so I ran off with a steak and a couple of spuds.”
In the end the young prop didn’t stay in Dublin and signed with London Welsh to start over. Finding opportunities can be tough all over the world. There are those who love the game and love adventure, but you have to be aware of other elements that pull careers along.
Doran Jones says: “I think there is a gig economy in rugby and what I’ve found sampling National One life (with Rosslyn Park) – going all the way through and coming out the other end – you see the lads who were probably talented enough to have had a good career in rugby, but they decide to follow professions and earn whatever they can in the day job, just training Tuesdays and Thursdays and paying the bills. I have a far greater respect for that now than I maybe did before.
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“In hindsight it’s a very sensible play because in rugby, even if you make international grade or get to somewhere where you earn decent cash, unless you’re an absolute superstar you’ve still got to find a career (afterwards).”
There is another interesting subplot within the journeyman narrative. Yes, we must be acutely aware that life can be tough for many players and we must look after athletes lower down the pro ladder better. And yes, opportunities are sparse in some famous rugby nations. But you can also celebrate the magical careers borne out of such conditions.
He turns 45 in August but Ma’ama Molitika will potentially feature for Ampthill in the English Championship next season. Having left Tonga for New Zealand at 14 and played NPC there, then in Wales, England, Italy and Japan, the veteran player-coach is still up for it.
He says: “I’ll probably play, yes, but it will definitely be my last season! If I can get through to Christmas, great. We will go week by week and it’s a tough league, with a lot of travelling, but Ampthill’s a good little club: a good set-up, good bunch of boys, good group of people.
“I’m still enjoying it. I wouldn’t be commuting to England every week (from Barry, Wales) and running around if I didn’t feel able to compete at that level and enjoy it. Obviously the money’s not the same as the Premiership, but the money does help to pay the bills. It helps with my family and for the enjoyment.”
Molitika says his only regret is that he never played Super Rugby, but he left to find a life overseas when you needed a day job if you were in New Zealand’s second tier. It was on the way, he says, that he made great memories, great friends and fell for life in Wales.
We know big-name Test stars move abroad all the time. Japan and France are fruitful markets now. But you can also look at guys like Thor Halvorsen.
The South African confesses things were lonely when he first left regular Currie Cup rugby with Boland Cavaliers for Italy at 25, joining Mogliano. By his third season, though, he was thriving.
After a short-lived return home and time worrying about a debilitating foot injury, he was back in Italy, at the level under Benetton and Zebre, with Rovigo Delta.
According to Halvorsen, young South African talents have to be prepared to take a leap of faith abroad. He knows plenty of energetic African players (and coaches) who have made their way in Italy, Spain, Sri Lanka and Russia.
“There are so many kids in South Africa who are not getting their chances and they are heading overseas,” the back-row says. “South Africa has some of the best (rugby) schools in the world and in big competitions they are dominating. But a lot of South African schoolboys are wasted now and after U20s, many of the boys stop playing.
“I’ve spoken to many who ask me, ‘Should I head overseas?’ If you have the opportunity and can go at a young age, do it. I know so many guys who are here (in Europe) playing now. They live a good life. To travel the world and get paid for it, what can be better than that?”
Well, all will agree that in a perfect world, more money in less-developed rugby nations and especially at lower levels would be better. There would be more security and less volatility. We’ve all seen what has happened at Yorkshire Carnegie recently.
Yet there is a romanticism that powers many a journeyman, staving off the question of whether it’s time to stop seeking that one last contract.
INKING A DEAL
IT WON’T always be a shift overseas that sees athletes move. And according to player agent Ali Smith, of Phoenix Sports Management, what is best for a career won’t always be about more pay.
“I’ll be honest, when most players move the reason is an increase in salary,” Smith admits. “But I’ve had many players who moved and took pay cuts for rugby reasons and development reasons.
“Fans might think agents do deals to make as much money as we can, but if we move a player to a club where he’ll develop and he’ll start and play more, his value will rise in the years to come. I tell my players it’s not a backwards movement but a sideways movement.
“Mainly these guys are Premiership players who have played one or two seasons out of the academy. They may not get a lot of game time, play a lot of Prem Cup, the A League. They may get offered another contract there but there’s a Championship club offering a 20-30% pay cut but to play every week. I see that as a sideways movement.”
The idea is that many top Premiership sides would rather sign the young player who knows how Premiership rugby works and has also played often and starred in the Championship, rather than the guy who made up the numbers at a big club over a few years.
That’s for the whippersnappers. With established names, Smith explains, moving or renewing your contract where you are is about fostering relationships with top sides, checking on the realistic ambitions of your players and also understanding genuine market value.
Then we get to the veterans looking for one last deal at the end of a career.
Doran Jones understands the lay of the land, saying: “I was always very pragmatic about it. Ultimately it’s a business decision. Perhaps at your peak you can command a certain wage and offer good value through what you do. There will come a tipping point in their mind where they see you as expensive or surplus. That can happen overnight.”
Smith explains what steps you can take at this stage. If, say, a 33-year-old lock sees his contract is up and knows he will swap clubs, moves are made.
Running with the example, Smith says: “We know which clubs around Europe are looking for an experienced lock so we’d go straight to those ones with a CV and a highlights package. We’d say, ‘This is a guy you should consider’. In addition, we’d speak to every other club, within reason – there are some you know there is no point picking up the phone to. But the majority we’d tell them we have this player, he’s out of contract. ‘Are you interested, yes or no?’
“In a lot of cases it will be ‘potentially’ or ‘not right now’. With recruitment, a lot of things have knock-on effects. So a club might not want an experienced lock when you speak at Christmas, but they don’t know their own experienced lock is going to leave. By the end of January, when they know he will leave, suddenly your guy becomes an interest.
“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.”
There is also the ‘joker’ market in France, where clubs sign injury cover throughout the season – remember that’s how Hagan was picked up by Béziers. For older players, they must calculate what staying on the treadmill means. As Smith says of France: “When a player gets to 31, 32 and is looking to maximize his income before retiring, he may have to take these options, though it might not be the best for their rugby or for looking after their bodies.”
Smith explains that at the top end a two-year deal for a 33-year-old is likely to have in-built clauses. For example, a club might only activate the second year depending on the number of games a player plays in year one.
Sometimes there is no contract on the table at all. If a player gets to June or July, even late May, without offers, some serious decisions need to be made.
And if the veterans start dropping into England’s National One or lower but are still looking for some good ‘cash contracts’ or smaller deals to tick along while setting up their next steps, the good agents will offer some help and advice, but in most cases this is the time for the player to begin making the tough calls on their own.
ALL THESE powerful forces apply to coaches too. However, sheer ability may not be enough when you are taking up new roles. According to Phil Pretorius, who has vast experience in South Africa, worked with the Tonga team in 1999 and later embarked on overseas stints in Ireland, Sri Lanka, the Cayman Islands and the Czech Republic, you must also “play the small politics right”.
Pretorius sounds some words of caution about the “backstabbing” and obtuseness coaches can encounter all over the globe. Yet the former university lecturer admits that while he will likely call it quits on coaching – adding that if he had his time again he’d have stayed in academia – he admits it is easier said than done. He will always have a passion for coaching gnawing at him. So what forced him abroad in the first place?
“There were two things,” he surmises. “Number one, as a coach you have a shelf life in certain places. In South Africa there is this huge paradigm that when you get older you are finished, which is completely false. As you get older, as long as you keep your passion, you get better as a coach because you have insight, experience and wisdom.
“In the second place, I’m one of those adventurous guys who wanted to coach overseas. That was a dream. I’d done everything in South Africa bar coach the Springboks. I’d coached SA Barbarians, the Bulls in Super Rugby, 250 Currie Cup games. I decided to try my luck.”
By his own admission, homesickness, as well as some politics, eventually did for him in some jobs. But in the few years he spent with Galway Corinthians, he fell in love with the club, the people, the rugby. He says: “I became a much better coach in Ireland, technically. It added so many new strings to my bow.”
Sri Lanka’s Navy Sports Club gave him another good experience, but after three months he was keen to get home. He would take projects in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe but he would not last more than a year in either role. He is now free to enjoy family life more.
Of course, not all experiences are equal. With Zebre, boss Michael Bradley is well used to spending time away from his family. With every coaching job he has had abroad, his wife and kids have remained in Ireland. What is that like?
He says: “Well, first of all it could be three months (away at a time). It’s not ideal but I think the reference point is if the kids are happy and Gill is happy – and you pick that up on the phone or on Skype. If that changed, that would be a problem. Family would come first.”
Going on to talk about coaching in foreign climes, he adds: “First and foremost, it’s a job. The world is a small place and I’ve worked in Edinburgh, Tbilisi, Bucharest, now in Parma but I could be anywhere: it doesn’t matter.
“You’re working in rugby. You’re at the club, you have the on-pitch, off-pitch, you have players coming in and out, understanding the cultures and then the ambition on the other side and managing up and down. It’s the same everywhere, just to different degrees.
“In terms of the travel, it takes me 12 hours to get home from Parma. I can’t get home any quicker! It took me 12 hours from Georgia as well, which is weird but that’s just the reality.”
When he is done with Zebre, Bradley says he would be fine travelling even further afield if that is where the work takes him. He likes the experiences rugby has afforded his family so far.
He also agrees that there is a bit of a management merry-go-round in rugby, but there’s a reason you keep seeing coaches like Eddie Jones and Jake White linked with roles around the planet. People know their qualities.
So would he recommend working abroad to young coaches out there?
“Absolutely. There aren’t enough jobs in Ireland (or the UK) and you won’t get the experience. If you go straight into (a club) you’ll be one-dimensional, until you learn there’s a bigger world out there. It’s a balance, though. You’ll also need some degree of expertise.
“The right answer is that if you do get an opportunity, you go, because you’ll learn a lot about yourself as well.”
So often the word ‘journeyman’ is seen as meaning less-than or tainted, a tradesman shunted all over. But there are also heroes who move from club to club. There are solid and humble pros who seek their fortunes abroad. Some just need an opportunity.
We talk about rugby being for all shapes and sizes. The game should be for all the varying personality types too. Especially those with wanderlust.
This special feature first appeared in the magazine in June.
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