Toulon step up chase for Jamie Heaslip
French giants raise offer to lure Leinster star after O'Brien's rejects €600,000-a-year
TOULON will do everything they can to lure Jamie Heaslip to France after Sean O'Brien's last-gasp decision to turn down their lucrative offer and remain with Leinster.
According to sources in France, the European champions were left stunned by the Leinster star's overnight U-turn that saw him spurn an offer of a gross salary of €600,000 per annum to sign a two-year IRFU deal to stay with his home province, believed to be worth €420,000 a year.
The French side responded instantly by increasing their offer to Heaslip, who has yet to decide on his next move. It is understood that the difference between the union's current offer and the deal on the table from Toulon is significant.
Heaslip's representatives from IKON Talent are believed to have met with the French club in Paris on Wednesday following the player's visit to the south of France over Christmas, but talks with the union are still ongoing and no decision is expected before the end of next week.
Leinster remain confident of brokering a deal for the 30-year-old Ireland vice-captain, but Toulon's determination to land one of the two men they had identified as prime targets for next season's squad means that, having lost out on O'Brien, they are determined to capture Heaslip to join their galaxy of stars next season.
News that O'Brien had committed to Leinster yesterday morning is believed to have come as a shock to the French club, who had hosted the Carlow native at the weekend as he attended their win over Cardiff Blues in Nice.
They concluded discussions with the 26-year-old confident that he would join next season on a net salary worth €470,000 a year.
His agent Fintan Drury, who negotiated Johnny Sexton's move to France last season, went back to the union with a final figure and finally they struck a deal in the early hours of yesterday morning.
Attention now turns to Heaslip's future and the battle to secure the Naas native's signature.
The IRFU are also working to nail down the contracts of Munster pair Keith Earls and Paul O'Connell, while Dave Kearney, Rhys Ruddock and a number of other players out of contract at the end of the season have also yet to decide on their next move.
It is believed their determination to move players on to appearance and incentive-based deals has not gone down well in negotiations, but the capture of O'Brien represents a significant coup for the union in their battle to keep their best players at home in the face of the increasing financial might of the French clubs.
O'Brien joins Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray, Ian Madigan and Rory Best in committing his future to Ireland ahead of next year's World Cup and while he admitted his head was turned by "some of the biggest rugby clubs in the world", he opted to remain at home and hopes to challenge for honours with Leinster.
"It is flattering to find yourself the subject of interest from some of the biggest rugby clubs in the world, but in the end I made a decision based on the standard mix of professional and personal considerations," he said.
"It was a very difficult decision but, with a World Cup next year and the fact that I believe Leinster can continue to win trophies, I have decided to commit my immediate future to the club."
"I am very excited about what Ireland can achieve under Joe Schmidt and I am confident that, under Matt O'Connor, Leinster will remain the power in Europe it has been over the past five or six years," O'Brien continued.
"I want to acknowledge the professionalism of all those involved, including the overseas clubs with whom I had discussions, and thank Leinster and the IRFU for their commitment to me.
"Finally, a word about the Leinster fans because their voice represents an important consideration for players like me when it comes to making big career decisions such as this."
There was further good news for Leinster yesterday as they named Richardt Strauss on the bench for tonight's Heineken Cup clash with the Ospreys.
It had been thought that the South African-born Ireland international's season was over after a hole in his heart was discovered in October but he has made a quicker-than-expected recovery and could yet be in the frame for the Six Nations.