Rugby ushers in age of the agent

The man behind the pounds 1m moves of Scott Quinnell and the woman behi nd Jeremy Guscott relish new era; Paul Trow talks to the serious players for whom sport is a big deal
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Not much is guaranteed about rugby union's future at the moment but one thing is certain - we shall hear a lot about agents and transfer fees this summer. A century of tradition was swept away last week when Richmond, courtesy of the financier Ashley Levett, unveiled a pounds 700,000 army of recruited talent headed by Ben Clarke and Scott Quinnell, two of the game's outstanding No 8s.

The deal which took Clarke from Bath had been "bubbling under" for weeks, but Quinnell's move from rugby league's premier club Wigan was a classic example of the speed with which union's fledgling transfer market is now capable of moving.

Less than a week earlier, the 23-year-old Welshman insisted he was definitely not homesick for the game of his father (Derek) and uncle (Barry John). His thoughts were focused only on the remaining two years of his contract with Wigan and, no, he did not regret switching codes after winning only nine caps.

But he had reckoned without "super-agent" Mike Burton, the former British Lions and England prop who is still a key player nearly 18 years after hanging up his jersey. "I handled Scott's move to Wigan 18 months ago as well, so I've now sold him for more than pounds 1m," said Burton, who floated the Quinnell deal to Richmond less than two weeks ago. "I must commend Richmond as it was the fastest transfer I've ever been involved in."

For Burton, it seems that the fast track is destined to get even faster. He has been hired by St Helens to organise another high-profile transfer from league to union - that of the former Wales centre Scott Gibbs who kept Will Carling out of the 1993 Lions team in New Zealand.

"Scott is anxious to return to his roots, but that commission came because St Helens were delighted with the way I organised the travel arrangements for their fans to Wembley for last month's Challenge Cup final," said Burton. "I've got a wide range of interests - travel, corporate hospitality, ticketing - and it's amazing how they all create business for each other."

Rugby's commercial waters are still a small pond compared to football's murky depths, yet Burton is by no means the only fish swimming around. Perhaps the most marketable union star of all is Jeremy Guscott, but the Bath and England centre has so far eluded Burton's clutches. His agent is Maria Pedro, whose clients have included the rock star Peter Gabriel and the model Marie Helvin.

"Jeremy approached me because he was looking for an agent to handle his non-rugby related activities some five years ago," said Ms Pedro. "At the time I knew nothing about the sport but my husband was a huge rugby fan so I took him on. I found him plenty of sponsorship endorsements and he has a big television career to look forward to."

Her clients also include Tony Underwood (of Jonah Lomu fame), Nick Popplewell, one of Rob Andrew's first signings at Newcastle, the French flanker Laurent Cabannes, who is keen to play in English rugby next season, and Gareth Chilcott, the Bath prop turned television pundit and pantomime star.

"My role is slightly changing these days. Now rugby has gone open I am in a position to take on more clients," she said. "I like dealing with rugby players - they are generally articulate and bright. At the moment, most of my players are at the peak of their playing powers. My hope for the future is that the game is less like last Saturday's Pilkington Cup final and a lot more like the current Super-12 series."

By her own admission, Ms Pedro may be a relatively recent arrival on the rugby scene, but Burton in effect began his career as an agent more than 20 years ago. "I was always business manager for the team pool, collecting boot money, selling players' tickets and organising their after-dinner speaking engagements. In those days, internationals got pounds 50 a game to wear Adidas boots and the whole England team was signed up for pounds 1,500. It was peanuts, but the companies knew they had us over a barrel because we were breaching the amateur regulations."

A rebel during his playing days with Gloucester, where he is still based, Burton has never held an official position within the game. None the less, he could well be rugby's highest earner over the next 12 months - his companies turned over pounds 8.5m in 1995-96 and he expects to top pounds 10m this year. But it might surprise the beleaguered authorities to learn that, far from being an opponent, he is potentially their staunchest ally. "It's absolutely vital the clubs don't take control of the game," he said. "They want to protect their investments, but some of them are trying to restrict their players' international chances."

That is not to say the unions can count on his unequivocal support. "The rule preventing a non-EC player from playing for an English club until he has served a 180-day qualifying period must go. It is a world-wide restraint of trade," he said.

Burton works for unions and clubs as well as players. "I'm happy to help anyone," he said. "Not long ago, the chairman of a rugby league club wanted to get rid of this player who was a bit of a barrack-room lawyer. So I found the player another team and put the transfer together. The player thought he was putting one over the chairman and flicked a V-sign at him as he drove away. The chairman smiled. Me? I just did my job."

Rugby's moving story: Guide to the expensive arrivals

Bristol: Arwel Thomas (Wales fly-half, from Neath); Gavin Walsh (prop, from Auckland, New Zealand); David Corkery (Ireland flanker, from Cork Constitution)

Gloucester: Trevor Woodman (prop, from Bath)

Harlequins: Gareth Llewellyn (Wales lock, from Neath); Keith Wood (Ireland hooker, from Garryowen)

Leicester: Graham Sheil (Scotland centre, from Melrose)

Orrell: Frano Botica (New Zealand fly-half, from Castleford RLFC)

Sale: John Devereux (Wales centre, from Widnes RLFC)

Saracens: Michael Lynagh (fly-half, former Australia captain, from Milan); Philippe Sella (centre, former France captain, from Agen); Eddie Halvey (Ireland flanker, from Shannon); Tony Copsey (Wales lock, from Llanelli)

Wasps: Alex King (England A fly-half, from Bristol University); Gareth Rees (Canada fly-half, from Newport)

West Hartlepool: Mark Ring (Wales centre, from Cardiff)

Blackheath: John Gallagher (New Zealand full-back, from rugby league)

Coventry: Derek Eves (flanker, from Bristol); Andy Blackmore (lock, from Bristol); Jez Harris (fly-half, from Leicester); Richie Robinson (centre, from Leicester)

London Irish: Conor O'Shea (Ireland full-back, from Lansdowne); Gabriel Fulcher (Ireland lock, from Cork Constitution)

Moseley: Phil Doyle (hooker, from Manawatu, New Zealand)

Newcastle: Rob Andrew (England fly-half, from Wasps); Steve Bates (England scrum-half, from Wasps); Dean Ryan (England No 8, from Wasps); Nick Popplewell (Ireland prop, from Wasps); Tony Underwood (England wing, from Leicester); Gary Armstrong (Scotland scrum-half, from Jed-Forest); Doddie Weir (Scotland lock, from Melrose); Peter Walton (Scotland flanker, from Northampton); Garath Archer (England lock, from Bristol); Tim Stimpson (England A full- back, from West Hartlepool)

Northampton: Gregor Townsend (Scotland fly-half, from Gala); Michael Dods (Scotland full-back, from Gala); Jonathan Bell (Ireland centre, from Ballymena)

Nottingham: Steve Reed (wing, from Leicester); Simon Hodgkinson (England full-back, from Moseley)

Richmond: Adrian Davies (Wales fly-half, from Cardiff); Andy Moore (Wales scrum-half, from Cardiff); Ben Clarke (England No 8, from Bath); Scott Quinnell (Wales No 8, from Wigan RLFC); Richard West (England lock, from Gloucester), Jim Fallon (England A wing, from Leeds RLFC); Darren Crompton (prop, from Bath)

Waterloo: Bart Pilecki (prop, from Australia); Jason Brittain (hooker, from Hawke's Bay, New Zealand)

Leeds: Phil Davies (Wales lock, from Llanelli); Colin Stephens (Wales fly-half, from Llanelli); Gerry Ainscough (centre, from Orrell); Mark Appleson (full-back, from Sale); Diccon Edwards (centre, Castleford RLFC); Gavin Baldwin (prop, Wakefield); Mike Shelley (prop, West Hartlepool)