‘Drawn-out contract talks hurting players’, says Mick Kearney
IRELAND team manager Mick Kearney has admitted that the practice of allowing player contract negotiations to be extended through the Six Nations championship must be addressed.
A number of the players who will be named today in Ireland's starting team for the championship opener against Wales on Saturday are in the final year of their deals.
Rob Kearney, Peter O'Mahony and Cian Healy are all out of contract at the end of this season, while Sean O'Brien's deal has 12 months to run.
All three are believed to be negotiating for central IRFU deals. Jonathan Sexton's decision to accept an offer in France has, however, brought into focus the IRFU's policy of not starting contract negotiations with players until far too close to the Six Nations championship.
It would make complete sense for the IRFU to ensure all contracts are negotiated before the championship.
It's not just those on central contracts who suffer as a result of this practice.
Traditionally, the provinces only begin negotiations with those in the final year of their contracts during the November international window.
This is a huge cause of angst for the players and their families.
Team manager Kearney admitted that this practice is not ideal and is a subject he and Declan Kidney will be raising with the National Team Review Group when they meet later this week.
"I think that it is really important that players go into a Six Nations prepared in the best possible manner, mentally, physically, emotionally," said Kearney.
"If there is some bit of a drag on them emotionally in terms of a contract, then that is something that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
"As Rob says, going in the week before your major tournament of the year with a worry hanging over your contract, or in negotiations, it far from ideal and it certainly something that needs to be worked on in the future."
The antiquated approach to contract negotiations is not, manager Kearney insisted, an example of amateurism still receiving a hat-tip – "if you look at the IRFU and the way they've actually handled the professional game going right back to the start, I think they've done a bloody good job" – but it is astonishing that the practice of protracted contract negotiations is a long-standing one in Irish rugby.
Indeed, current assistant coach Anthony Foley can even remember when negotiations dragged on until well after the Six Nations and also recalls it not being ideal preparation for challenges ahead.
"Sometimes, it was later (back in my time)," said Foley. "As a player, you want to focus on playing. Players don't need distractions. They need to be focused on the job in hand. They are under enough pressure during this period."
It is also a peculiarity that the national team manager must meet with a committee such as the National Team Review Group, to which Kidney must present his plans for the next international, usually on the eve of the game.
The IRFU will have been shocked by the decision of Sexton to reject their final offer, though, and following on from the concerns due to be raised by Kearney and Kidney, it will surely fall on them to update their approach to players' contracts before the trickle started by Sexton turns into a torrent.