Friday 26 December 2014

IRFU have won 'Tank' battle -- but French threat will not go away

Published 17/01/2014 | 02:30

The IRFU have been criticised for leaving contract negotiations with Leinster's Sean O'Brien  recklessly late
The IRFU have been criticised for leaving contract negotiations with Leinster's Sean O'Brien recklessly late

There was a calm, almost anodyne tone to the IRFU statement confirming Sean O'Brien's new two-year deal to stay with Leinster.

The good news story of keeping, arguably, Ireland's most coveted player tied to the umbilical cord of a centralised Union contract was delivered, naturally, without any hint of the behind-the-scenes flux that prefaced O'Brien's decision not to follow the money to France.

But this has been a trying week for the Union, one that reiterated the sense of them fighting for survival in a market beyond their means.

Toulon were not the only French Top 14 club willing to stretch beyond €600,000 per annum for 'the Tullow Tank', a salary that -- given French tax laws -- represented more than a doubling of his existing Union wage.

Whilst there is broad acceptance among Irish players and their agents that IRFU contracts cannot possibly now match those backed up by private benefactors like Mourad Boudjellal (Toulon) and Jacky Lorenzetti (Racing Metro) in France -- not to mention the improved Top 14 television deal recently secured from Canal Plus -- the gap has begun to widen into a vast chasm.

We are not privy to the fine details of O'Brien's new deal, but -- as recently as last Monday -- he was known to be deeply frustrated by the distance between his two main suitors.

On Tuesday, I understand that O'Brien's agent, Fintan Drury, went back to the Union with a figure that he suggested would keep his client at home.

That the final agreement was not subsequently reached until the early hours of yesterday morning would suggest the figure was, most probably, not met.

The IRFU has been accused of leaving their negotiations with O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip recklessly late, given that virtually every other world-class player, either north or south of the equator, has been contractually tied down until after next year's World Cup.

Indeed, chances are that Toulon's failure to land O'Brien will now increase their interest in Heaslip, because there are simply no other players of that calibre currently on the market.

Undoubtedly, the optics of losing both Leinster back-rows to France less than a year after Jonathan Sexton's departure would have been ruinous for the Union.

Indeed, that scale of loss would also have represented a crushing blow for Matt O'Connor's bid to build on the Joe Schmidt legacy, having seen Isa Nacewa return home to New Zealand and knowing that another dressing-room leader, Leo Cullen, will soon decamp to the club's coaching staff.

Pointedly, the Union tagged a line for news editors to the end of yesterday's statement about O"Brien, stressing: "THIS CONTRACT IS FUNDED BY THE IRFU."

This, presumably, was to re-emphasise how the salaries of Irish international players cannot be topped up by their clubs. In other words, no matter how deeply Leinster CEO, Mick Dawson, might covet having O'Brien and Heaslip at the RDS, only the Union could close any deal.

In this, they were doomed maybe to lose any propaganda war, with a raft of former players critical this week of what seems the absence of a coherent, pro-active approach to tying down big-name players on long-term contracts.

But that criticism maybe missed the new financial realities facing the IRFU.

Poor sales of Aviva 10-year tickets have undermined financial confidence within the Union and there is growing frustration that Heaslip's existing contract -- said to be worth €450,000 per annum -- is now being referenced as some kind of benchmark for negotiation.

REGULATION

Equally, few agents want their players committed to lengthy contracts given a regulation that they themselves cannot tie their client down to anything more than two-year deals.

In this climate, the Union finds it increasingly impractical to go to the gambling rooms of contract negotiation early. Throwing your best offer instantly on the table simply isn't smart business -- it's commercial suicide.

There is a sense too that, for all the current contract dithering, the IRFU retains a far better hold on the professional game than their English, Welsh or Scottish counterparts.

Three of the four Irish franchises will again make the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and the fourth, Connacht, still hold a mathematical chance of joining them.

There is no evidence of any profound friction between the Union and the clubs and, despite Sexton's move to Racing Metro, no broad flight of players to foreign shores just yet.

But the money available in France has skewed the world market, with long-term implications right across the globe. For the IRFU that represents a problem beyond their influence.

Keeping O'Brien at home was, thus, a victory, but only a small one.

Irish Independent

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