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When the glory of sport is ruined by money

Julian Savea, in red, is making no moves to exit his reported $3 million Toulon deal, despite getting stick from club owner Mourad Boudjellal. Photo/Getty Images

Both golf and rugby have provided breathtaking examples in recent weeks of how sport's ethos can go out the window when money is involved.

The extraordinary spectacle of Mourad Boudjellal, the multimillionaire owner of French rugby club Toulon, insulting star recruit and former All Blacks wing Julian Savea via the media can be summarised a number of ways, ranging from “he who pays the piper calls the tune” to “buyer beware”.

Both parties should have known what they were letting themselves in for. Boudjellal has a track record of high-handed behaviour and verbal abuse, including his portrayal of Jerry Collins, who played for Toulon in 2008/9, as a wild drunk who was fortunate not to be behind bars.

By his own admission, Boudjellal’s decision to do a two-year deal with Savea, reportedly worth more than $3 million, was based on the Wellingtonian’s explosive performance against France in a 2015 World Cup quarter-final. As rugby scribes and fans here could have predicted, subsequent sightings of that Julian Savea have been rare, fleeting and unverified.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Having decided he’d made a bad investment, Boudjellal apparently intends to make Savea’s life in Toulon as unpleasant as he can – which is very unpleasant – in the hope the player simply leaves the club, thereby voiding his contract. Savea, presumably, will put up with the humiliation to ensure his contract is honoured.

The big winner in this lamentable episode is New Zealand Rugby (NZR). When Savea left for Toulon last August, NZR ceased having to pay a superstar salary to a player who’d struggled to make the Hurricanes starting line-up. (Savea had been contracted until the end of this year’s World Cup on a reported annual salary of $800,000.) And Boudjellal carrying on like a caricature of the ruthless paymaster who insists on having his pound of flesh is a timely reminder to Kiwi rugby players thinking of flying the coop that being an imported star at a French club isn’t all vin rouge and pétanque.

Meanwhile, golf has provided an even more breathtaking example of how sport’s supposed ethos can go out the window when money enters the equation.

Last November, American Matt Kuchar was a late addition to the field for the Mayakoba Classic at Playa del Carmen in Mexico. Deprived of the services of his regular caddie, Kuchar hired local David Ortiz to fill in. When Kuchar went on to win his first tournament for four and half years and collect a cheque for US$1.3 million, he declared Ortiz “was definitely my lucky charm … and did a great job as well. He did just what I was hoping for”.

Matt Kuchar, right, and short-changed stand-in caddie David Ortiz. Photo/Getty Images

Fast forward to January. As Kuchar was on his way to winning the Sony Open in Hawaii, PGA tour journeyman Tom Gillis tweeted, “If Kuchar wins this weekend, let’s hope he pays his man more than [US$3000] like the last win. Could’ve changed the man’s life.”

Social-media users took an interest; Kuchar insisted “it wasn’t three thousand, it’s not a story”. When it emerged that the enormously wealthy Kuchar’s dismissiveness was predicated on a hair-splitting distinction between US$3000 and US$5000, social-media scorn intensified and he was heckled by spectators at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles. In short order, the lanky Kuchar had gone from being a crowd favourite widely seen as one of the sport’s nice guys, to the most despised figure in golf.

Financial arrangements between golfers and caddies aren’t governed by hard and fast guidelines. The norm with one’s regular caddie is a US$3000 tournament fee plus commissions of 5% if the player makes the cut, 7% for a top-10 finish and 10% for a win.

Kuchar, who is aged 40 with career winnings of US$47 million and at least that much again from endorsements, struck a deal with Ortiz that didn’t allow for him winning the tournament: he paid the Mexican US$4000 for a top-10 finish plus a US$1000 bonus for “a good week”. As far as Kuchar was concerned, they’d made a deal and that was that. As he put it, for a bloke who normally earns US$200 a day, “making five thousand is a great week”.

Kuchar has now apologised and paid Ortiz another US$45,000. The jury is out on whether that will repair the damage done to his reputation. A veteran caddie told the New York Post that Kuchar will be remembered as “a cheapskate” who didn’t “make it right” with the belated top-up, “he made it adequate”. After all, US$50,000 is still a long way short of the US$129,600 a regular bagman would have received.

This article was first published in the March 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.