French trail has run cold for Irish captain despite Top 14 appeal
Published 22/04/2015 | 02:30
The trail leading Paul O'Connell to a romantic rugby farewell in France ran cold some time ago.
Top 14 clubs, Toulon included, were certainly interested in recruiting the Irish captain and O'Connell did deliberate for a couple of months on the possibility of ending his career in the French League.
But the upheaval of moving his young family abroad was never going to be compensated by some kind of pot of gold.
Around the time the Six Nations was concluding, O'Connell had decided it was not for him. The money on offer in France would have been superior to his current contract with Munster, estimated (given tax relief law) to be worth in the region of ¤280,000 per annum, but not dramatically so.
The heaviest spenders in France today are Racing Metro and Stade Francais.
Toulon's multi-millionaire president Mourad Boudjellal has the luxury now of selling a project to rugby's big names that offers a high expectation of trophies.
So, salary-wise, he would not countenance paying the ¤1.5m per annum that Jacky Lorenzetti is reputed to be paying to bring Dan Carter to Racing.
If O'Connell was maybe three years younger, the financial packages on offer to him from Top 14 clubs would undoubtedly have been more attractive.
But at 35, he is no longer in a position to command the kind of money Boudjellal has committed (¤65,000 a month) to the likes of Australian playmaker Matt Giteau.
That said, O'Connell was, I believe, sufficiently interested in the professional challenge of finishing his career in France, irrespective of salary, to give the option serious consideration.
He has grown increasingly frustrated at Munster, where he is now into his 14th season, and was especially disappointed to see one of the province's brightest home-grown talents, JJ Hanrahan, depart for Northampton.
O'Connell has always been motivated by the pursuit of rugby's biggest prizes and more and more, it seems, those are now slipping out of Munster's reach.
His input to the game-plan has, I understand, been minimal under his old provincial and Irish team-mate, Anthony Foley, a stark contrast to his working relationship with Ireland coach, Joe Schmidt.
And he is known too to have been particularly incensed by last year's leaked email of an internal squad review ending up in the hands of Munster's players.
O'Connell still has a year to run on his IRFU contract but that contract will take on a peculiar status if, as expected, he chooses to retire from international rugby after the forthcoming World Cup.
Centralised contracts are designed, essentially, to protect the interest of the national team.
If O'Connell wants to finish with Munster too this autumn, it seems inconceivable that the province would engage in any legal conflict with one of its greatest players.
His extraordinary performances in leading Ireland to a successful defence of their Six Nations title earned him a Player of the Championship award and confounded those who believed that his greatest days were behind him.
Those performances would certainly have alerted French suitors, Grenoble and runaway Pro D2 leaders also linked with moves for O'Connell.
But his wife Emily recently gave birth to Lola, a sister for their four-year-old son Paddy, and it is thought that O'Connell's extending family may have been a deciding factor in ultimately turning him away from a move to France.
He says he has an "open mind" about his next career choice once he retires, but commented before this year's Six Nations: "I'm very interested in coaching and how we communicate. The best coaches seem to be very good communicators and they understand how people learn."
To that end, he would undoubtedly have seen the appeal of working in a different club environment to that he has known for the entirety of his professional career.
Despite Toulon leading the Top 14 standings and (after their defeat of Leinster) still being on course to be crowned European champions for a third consecutive year, Boudjellal has already been busy recruiting for next season.
Wallaby out-half Quade Cooper was a guest at Sunday's game and is expected to join Ma'a Nonu, Napolioni Nalaga, Samu Manoa and Duane Vermeulen next season.
The French giants did make enquiries about Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien before both players signed new IRFU contracts last season and O'Connell's leadership qualities, and natural charisma would undoubtedly have been attractive to them.
They moved quickly yesterday to deny any suggestion that the Limerick man had signed a contract to join them, but Boudjellal will not have been in any way displeased at having the club linked with another marquee name.
For O'Connell, though, the trail to France ran cold around the time he was lifting the Six Nations trophy. His next great motivation will be the World Cup. Beyond that?
Most probably even he can't answer.