TO suggest that relations between Connacht and Leinster are strained because of the impending transfer of Mike McCarthy would be a major understatement.
Connacht are justifiably furious at what they see as yet another blow to their high ambitions. McCarthy, capped six times by Ireland, has jumped to prominence over the last 12 months and has been a critical factor in the Westerners' progression.
The 31-year-old was also outstanding in the autumn internationals, especially against South Africa, when he picked up the Man of the Match award.
Little wonder then that he has again attracted Leinster's interest – but their ambitions clearly run counter to those of Connacht. And they have clout, tradition and a history of success that all combined to persuade McCarthy his future lies in the east rather than the west.
What is particularly galling for Connacht is that McCarthy is the latest to beat a path from their door to Leinster's.
And it also rankles that these moves only ever seem to come about at times when Connacht are themselves experiencing success.
The moves are not always successful, though, as a number of high-profile recruits from Connacht have all but faded into obscurity as Leinster players.
But the underlying argument is that none of these moves are for the Westerners' benefit, and unless something is done to arrest this trend they will always be seen as a feeder club for the more powerful and successful sides.
How much is the contract
worth to McCarthy?
As a senior international player, McCarthy's basic salary will be between €180,000 and €200,000 per annum. It is not a central IRFU contract.
Every professional player in Ireland is, indirectly at least, paid from the same IRFU pot. Leinster are allocated a separate budget by the IRFU to spend on players on their roster who are not centrally contracted. How Leinster chose to spend that money is up to them.
McCarthy reportedly has been offered a three-year contract so, before tax, it is worth between €540,000 and €600,000 in total.
Did Leinster offer Mike McCarthy more money?
No. If there is a tug-of-war between provinces over a player there are protocols in place – IRFU directed – that come into effect. Leinster will have been made aware of the offer Connacht made to Mike McCarthy and they are not allowed to make a better offer.
That said, McCarthy will be improving his earning power on a personal/ commercial level as a Leinster player.
And Leinster are free to put into place a bonus scheme which could be better than Connacht's.
What are Leinster saying
about the controversy?
Not a lot. Leinster have a policy of not commenting on transfers until they are completed, and they are sticking to that.
They have not commented, even to address Connacht's disapproving accusation of their "targeting" their first-team players.
They will presumably address the situation, if only in an attempt to defuse the row, at today's scheduled press conference, when the subject of McCarthy's capture is certain to be raised.
What are Connacht saying?
Chief executive Tom Sears came out strongly against Leinster yesterday when expressing disappointment at Leinster's practice of "persistently targeting Connacht players in recent years, particularly when often not in the best interest of Irish rugby".
Sears' anger is understandable. McCarthy is Connacht's only current Ireland international and to lose him is a massive blow and sends out all the wrong signals from their perspective.
Despite arguments to the contrary Connacht are still seen as a feeder club for the more successful provinces.
What are the IRFU saying?
Not a lot, which isn't surprising. The move will benefit McCarthy and thereby the national team. If the move is purely from a rugby standpoint and the player wants to better himself, then the options were Leinster or England.
The IRFU will be happier McCarthy chose the former, not that they'll ever admit to that.
They did release a statement reiterating their support of Connacht, bless them.
"The IRFU will continue to provide support to Connacht Rugby which has included capital investment for the improvement of facilities and also the ability to retain and recruit players above the normal allocation given to the other provincial teams," said the statement.
"The protocols that exist for the transfer of players between provinces must observe the freedom of movement of employment and respect the choice of players as well."
What does this say
Where are your indigenous second-rows? Devin Toner has three Ireland caps. Leo Cullen won the last of his 32 Ireland caps back in September of last year. Since Malcolm O'Kelly retired, Leinster have consistently had to go outside of their set-up in order to recruit second-rows.
Leinster have now gone to Connacht to recruit a suitable second-row. The Heineken Cup champions have a conveyor belt of talented backs ... where are the forwards, particularly the second-rows?
Can Leinster help him develop
his skills further?
That's the million-dollar question. The dearth of second-rows is an issue Leinster need to address. Having to recruit a succession of 30-something second-rows from outside their stable doesn't reflect all that well on them.
This is the second time they have approached McCarthy. The first time he opted to re-sign with Connacht, but after six years he has clearly opted to see if he can further his career by signing for what is a bigger and more successful club.
Can Leinster guarantee him the first-team football he needs?
Yes. He will be first choice with Leinster from next season. Toner has been knocking around for a while but has not been able to secure a regular starting berth.
That Leinster have had to go outside their roster to recruit Thorn and Hines in recent years highlights a weakness they perceive in their squad.
From next season McCarthy will be one of Leinster's starting second-rows with Cullen, Toner, Damian Browne and Roux scrapping it out for the second spot.
Is this good for Irish rugby?
In the short term – yes. McCarthy will benefit from the environment in Leinster. He will be playing on a weekly basis with his international colleagues and this will improve their understanding of each other's games.
Is this good for Mike McCarthy?
Yes. He is a grown man and it is his decision to move. If he didn't want to join Leinster he wouldn't. Once he made up his mind he wanted to move it was 'game over' as regards Connacht's chances of keeping him. And would they want a player on their books who didn't want to be there?
Is this good for Connacht?
At this stage it's death by a thousand cuts. How can they progress if they consistently lose their best players?
There is no obvious solution to the dilemma. Players will always want to better themselves and improve their career prospects. Winning trophies is what motivates the elite athletes.
Unless something radically changes, Connacht will continue to suffer. Players will question whether or not Connacht can help them realise their potential, and coaches will be similarly perplexed.
Could the IRFU have
stopped the move?
No. The IRFU can 'advise' players where to go but they cannot stop a player from deciding he wants to find new employment. That would contravene EU law. Neither can the IRFU dictate to a club who they can and cannot offer a contract to. Again, that would be against the law.