In the past we have done numerous interviews on this site, everything from players to coaches but never with an agent. The rugby agent is an integral part of the contracting process and selection of the right agent for an athlete can often make or break their future career prospects.
Matthew Russell is somewhat of an enigma, a lawyer by trade his journey into the player management field has been one that can be best described as the road less traveled. When we were first alerted to Matthew Russell it supersized us to learn that he was a South African operating in France and was in fact a French speaker.
With many top level South African talents having headed to France and many more set to leave South African shores for the lure of the Euro in the future we thought that there was likely no better way to get an insight into the French market from a South African who has been there and done it.
Matthew, firstly thanks for taking time out of your schedule to join us. Give us an idea of your background, what school did you attend and maybe give us a brief overview of your playing career.
I attended Rondebosch Boys’ High School, having matriculated in 2006. I then studied law at UCT, where I had five very enjoyable seasons playing for the U20 A and then the second XV. In 2013 I played rugby in South America, where there is a surprising passion for the game.
You are a French speaking South African that works as an agent in France, this surely must be pretty unique. Do you find yourself to be an outsider in the market or have the French rugby stakeholders wholly embraced you?
Admittedly, arriving in France not knowing the language was initially a challenge, but like with anything, if you choose to embrace it, it can be enormously satisfying. As my command of French has improved, so has the respect from clubs. I have of course also been fortunate to have been supported by my colleagues at CSM, who have a wealth of experience and knowledge in this industry.
How long did it take you to learn French?
It is still a work in progress! But to get to an acceptable level where I could understand and be understood probably took a year or two.
What are the qualities do you look for in players when considering who to sign?
The life of a professional rugby player today is not an easy one. A great deal of hard work and sacrifice is required. Consequently, whilst talent obviously remains a prerequisite, that has to be coupled with a determination to succeed and a readiness to overcome obstacles and challenges along the way.
There are a fairly large number of South Africans in France at the moment, why are our players so popular within the French market?
For starters, there exists among most South Africans a real desire to excel wherever we go. We also tend to have a very good work ethic, which is instilled in us from a young age. Of course the physical and abrasive South African playing style is also well suited to French rugby, which tends to be slightly slower than the brand of rugby played in the Southern Hemisphere.
2020 was a bumper year with some real young schoolboy stars heading over to France, most have come back home. Why do you think this is?
Some have returned to South Africa, yes, but many have stayed and are succeeding in France. Moving abroad at a young age is not for everyone, particularly to a country with a culture quite different to ours. It ultimately comes down to how badly you want to make a success of life in France. It’s not easy, but there are countless examples of players who have made it work.
What are the biggest challenges that young school players will face when considering moving over to France?
Each case is different. For some the language is a battle, for others it comes naturally and adds to the excitement.
The biggest challenge is probably adapting to being far away from loved ones, which is always going to be tough, especially when it’s your first time.
What are your likes and dislikes as an expat in France?
The food in France certainly lives up to its billing. And the long hours of sunlight in summer is a real bonus.
There’s not much not to like to be honest.
What do you miss most about South Africa?
Probably the friendliness and warmth of most South African people. Not to say that the French are not friendly and warm – they’re just a little more reserved.
How do you see the French market evolving? Do you think more foreign players will be embraced or do you think they may move to a more protective stance?
There will always be place for foreign players in France. That being said, becoming JIFF qualified (spending three years in an academy before turning 24) is becoming non negotiable except in the case of high profile and / or very experienced players.
Who are some young French players we should be keeping an eye on?
Within the French national squad there are a dozen or so young players all with very bright futures. Arthur Vincent (centre at Montpellier) is a player I’ve always particularly enjoyed watching.
Who are some young talents you currently manage that you think have a big future in the game?
I’d like to believe that all the young players I represent in the Top 14, Pro D 2 and Nationale academies in France, have the potential to make successful careers out of rugby.
CSM the company you work for are a dominant force in French rugby, what do you put this down to?
The directors of CSM France have built the agency from the ground up. A lot has to do with the network that they created, and which we as agents now retain. The fact that we are 13 agents at CSM France means that we are able to be selective about the players we represent, and also means that the speed of information received is very fast, leading to high efficiency.
What advice do you have for young rugby players looking to make the move overseas?
Don’t be afraid. If nothing else, time overseas is a life experience nobody can ever take away from you.
Whilst it’s important to speak to others who have made the move, you should know that each person will experience things differently. You’ll need to be resilient, but there is a huge amount to be gained if that’s the route you choose.
If a youngster wanted to become an agent in the future what advice would you give them?
I would recommend studying something else prior to moving into agency directly. It may then also be worth doing an internship at an established agency, in order to give yourself an idea as to whether it’s a career that could suit you or not.
What are your long term objectives in the game of rugby?
I’d like to remain in the industry for as long as possible. I’ve made a start as an agent in Europe, so why not keep going and see where this takes me.
If you want to ask Matthew any questions regarding rugby in France you can follow him on his instagram account by clicking here.
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