Sunday 24 September 2017

Love for Leinster may keep stars at home -- Jennings

Blues back-row hopes emotional ties to province will prevent O'Brien and Heaslip moving abroad

Shane Jennings, picture during yesterday’s training session at UCD, says you have to be tough to leave the club that has become your home
Shane Jennings, picture during yesterday’s training session at UCD, says you have to be tough to leave the club that has become your home
Shane Jennings enjoyed success abroad with Leicester but the Leinster player has warned Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien that leaving the province would be emotionally difficult
Jamie Heaslip is still in negotiations for a new contract with Leinster
Sean O'Brien is in demand
David Kelly

David Kelly

It's hard to imagine Shane Jennings being moved to tears by anything.

Only, perhaps, if someone thieved the last Jaffa Cake from kitman Johnny O'Hagan's hut before training might he lurch towards the lachrymose.

But even this indomitable rock has his weaknesses -- an enduring love of Leinster.

As Leinster supporters fret about the future of their terrific twosome -- Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip -- their back-row colleague knows that a player's future is not always about business.

It's personal, too.

Few normal people outside of rugby can realistically empathise with the sight of Johnny Sexton weeping in his bed before voluntarily signing a deal worth €52,000 per month to play professional rugby.

Within the sport, though, the emotional turmoil can be vivid.

Jennings, a former schoolmate of Sexton, went through a similar process himself when leaving Leinster for Leicester in 2005, minus the eye-popping cheque of course.

Nevertheless, it was at once a professional no-brainer and a personal heartbreaker.

CRYING

"Of course it's emotional," says the 32-year-old. "It's a professional decision, yeah, but it's still emotional.

"I didn't want to go. I was still crying in the car with my mom and she's saying, 'you'll never be the same again.'

"You can't take away the fact that it's going to be emotional, leaving the club you wanted to play with for the rest of your life. The place where you've grown up, your city, your family, your friends. So it's very tough.

"Like you said, it's a professional decision and you've got to be man enough to make that. And whether it's to develop as a player or for financial reasons, whatever, they're tough decisions.

"It was very tough for me. When I went to Leicester for the fist time, I met Pat Howard and he said: 'there's a contract on the table, do you want to sign it?'

"And I'm like, 'Jaysus, I only thought I was coming over to have a look at the place.' To make that step, you really have to be ready for it. Looking back, it was the best thing that I ever did. Because I grew up and I got better."

Of course, Leinster were a disorganised, dysfunctional rabble at the time of Jennings' departure. He knew he had to thrive and survive; as a professional he simply had no option but to leave.

The situation for Heaslip and O'Brien is different. Both are much more advanced in their career paths and Irish rugby needs them more than they need Irish rugby.

Can the emotional ties that bind to Leinster realistically supersede the attraction of a fully justified bump in salary recognition and the pull of winning in a different environment?

"That, hopefully, is a draw," says Jennings, admitting that in an ideal world neither he nor Sexton would ever have left in the first place.

"It means a lot to stay with your province. You can see it in the lads playing against us for Connacht, Ulster and Munster. That's why the interpros are so good, because it means so much to us. We have to keep all that. That's important to Leinster.

"Thankfully, we've got a group of 40 lads here and even if some come in from abroad they all buy into that ethos. We've had foreigners who have really come in and bought into that, so we need to maintain that for the future."

Sexton quibbled with his lack of game-time last season, but it didn't prevent him getting injured.

This season, he has been overplayed according to those in Irish rugby. Still, he gets injured -- ironically, again on Ireland duty.

However, Jennings dismisses the thoughts that overexposure might influence negatively upon any prospective decisions for O'Brien and Heaslip.

After all, they want to play rugby, not avoid it. That's why there are big bucks involved. "You want to play games. It's different maybe if you're an international 10. I played 60 games in two seasons for Leicester," he said.

"They're all games where you learn and develop, where you find out so much about yourself and your team-mates. It's the best place to learn. As a young bloke, I'd certainly say you want to play games, but you want to be an environment where you learn things."

As Jennings admits, the Leinster of 2013 must hope to survive any blows.

Hence, players like Rhys Ruddock, belatedly demonstrating his immense youthful promise and Dominic Ryan, hitherto cruelly mocked by injury, may be required to prolong the dynasty.

"I remember last year after Rhys played in the Amlin final against Stade in and he was over the moon," says Jennings of his back-row colleague.

"Other people were enjoying it, but he was, 'this is my first final and I have contributed to it'. So they want to be a part of adding value to the club."

The message is quite simple. Players may inevitably come and go in rugby's new reality, but the institution must remain stronger than any of its constituents.

Irish Independent

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