Leinster out in front as race for Robbie Henshaw hots up
Published 24/11/2015 | 02:30
And then there were three.
After Robbie Henshaw all but definitively ruled out a move to France - for the duration of the next contract he signs at least - it is inevitable that he will feature for one of three teams next season.
Connacht, the Pro12 unlikely lads to whom the 22-year-old remains committed for now; Leinster, from which direction all manner of hemline-raising has been going on for weeks now; or, last and sadly least, Munster, who remain privately aggrieved at not always being included in the debate.
There has been a reason for this, of course, in that Leinster continue to remain the most obvious destination for the gifted midfielder and, given their calamitous attempts to cope with their European escapade this term, they arguably need the morale boost more than any of their neighbours.
Which, given all the fanfare generated by the prodigal returns of Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa ahead of this season, reflects strongly the listless atmosphere pervading the fallen three-time European champions.
"Anyone could do with a big-name signing and Robbie is one of those guys who is a very exciting player at the moment," according to Leinster forwards coach John Fogarty.
"Anyone would be happy to have him, we would be happy to have him.
"It is exciting to see some of the younger players at the weekend, to see them grow over the next few weeks, months and years. What we have is quality and that is going to improve.
"If we get a big name in like a Robbie then that is exciting too. We are developing our own indigenous players and for us being able to recruit the best players in the world - both ends of that need to be functioning really well."
Presuming David Nucifora and all the smart boys in IRFU HQ have nearly finished their World Cup review, the next item on their agenda will be to decisively nail down the future of Ireland's hottest rugby prospect.
There has until now been no direct official contact between the player and the IRFU or the individual provinces who would love to secure his services; as it is a contract renewal, Henshaw (below) will effectively be making his own mind up.
The IRFU will seek to influence that decision, so too Leinster and Munster.
And to believe that none of these parties would not have done so indirectly in recent times - many of these individuals recently spent, oh, three months in each other's company - is laughable in the extreme.
With every province sticking to the inevitable refusal to comment on speculation, the endless flirtatious waltz would be better off concluded earlier rather than later.
Pat Lam continues to hope against hope that the player will stick with the ongoing thrill of the amiable Aucklander's revival of Connacht rugby and yet every time he does so - as he did once more yesterday - the sense strengthens that his grip on the player is loosening a tad more.
"Honestly, it's Robbie's choice," said Lam, who seems to have moved on from beating the Connacht drum to a more downbeat thrum.
"It's going to be totally up to him, like every other player. We don't really comment on players' recruitment and retention.
"Of course we want to hold on to him. There's a whole lot of guys in this team that I've been really blessed to work with going into my third year.
"I want to continue working with these guys. I think we're on a really good thing. We've got a good group of indigenous players and a good group of young guys coming in.
"I think the most important thing is that it's a big team effort. Everything Connacht does is about the team."
Henshaw's latest appearance in the media yesterday betrays someone who is gladly assisting an agency-led campaign amidst the spotlight in order to garner him the best deal possible.
In fact, Henshaw, closely advised by his father, Tony, and family friend Michael Cosgrave, is merely attempting to engineer what is best for him as his next move will shape his long-term career - rugby, not money, will be the driving factor.
"I have to look at my options and, I suppose, coming up towards Christmas we'll have to have a look. I can expect it to be an ongoing process," Henshaw said.
"At the moment I have to get all my options on the table and then I'll have to see what's best for my career.
"I'm not making any decisions yet at the moment. I'm just waiting until all the options come in and then I'm going to assess what is the best for my career.
"In terms of the French teams in the Champions Cup, their players are obviously being paid a significant amount of money, but I'd love to play all my rugby in Ireland at the moment.
"I'm still quite young so I wouldn't be thinking of leaving for a while. Further down the line it could be an option but at the moment I don't think so."
Everything points to December as being the critical juncture in this process and, in fairness to the IRFU, this would be an improvement on how previous negotiations have gone.
Henshaw's Ireland team-mate Luke Fitzgerald has joined the lengthy list of those who would eagerly welcome him at Leinster; even though he could theoretically steal his the No 12 jersey the Dubliner insists he himself wants to make his own.
"Age is a big thing, he's a young guy," enthused Fitzgerald. "Physically he has great attributes, he's a big guy, tough, he's up for the fight, which is a big thing with young guys because it does take a lot of time to get used to the big collisions, especially at 12.
"He really toughed it out against Argentina, which is a good sign. He took some bad knocks and big tackles but he took it really well and stayed on the pitch when things weren't going well for us.
"Footwork-wise he's very good for a big man, he's a very good defender, very willing, gets himself in good positions.
"And he has pretty good handling, he's worked on that. It's an attribute he's added to his game. He has a very good kicking game, he can play in the back field as well.
"I can see lots of reasons why any club would like to have Robbie in their ranks. I don't know whether the club are pitching to him or not but it sounds like they are."
It is precisely this ability to shout the loudest that may just give Leinster the edge as a slow bicycle race of a transfer tale nudges towards a conclusion.