Ruaidhri O'Connor: IRFU relief at securing Sean O'Brien's signature was palpable
THE ink had barely dried on the dots on the is and the crosses on the ts on Sean O’Brien’s contract and the IRFU were already taking to Twitter to release the good news this morning.
Seven months have passed since the union first sat down with the Carlow man’s agent Fintan Drury for initial talks on his future and in that time the story of where he would be playing his rugby next season took plenty of twists and tales.
Leinster have been known to be the player’s preferred option throughout the process, but with the French giants circling and the IRFU operating a deficit budget this season it wasn’t going to be easy.
“It is something I’d have to consider,” he said back in September. “At the minute I’m in Leinster and Ireland and I love playing for both of those. That’s where I want to be, but I need to look after me as well, look after my best interests, so it is a grey area.”
Clermont, Racing Metro and Toulon were all circling and turned his head, Stade Francais had a look and even yesterday there was fresh talk of another club ready to enter the race and match whatever the mega-rich European champions were offering.
Toulon were the favourites, however, coaxing the injured Tullow Tank to France for a chat and a tour, standard practice in all of this but still a sign that the prospect of a move was very real and agreement was close.
There is little doubt that the player could have earned more money in France where clubs have just signed a massive new television deal, but it was all about the union making him the right offer that he felt matched his value as probably Ireland’s most important player.
They have three contracts still to nail down, plus a series of smaller deals to agree, but this is the latest example of the floodgates being kept closed by those in charge of Irish rugby this season.
Many felt that Johnny Sexton’s move to Racing Metro would have precipitated a rush to the exits, but one by one Ian Madigan, Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan, Rory Best and now O’Brien have committed themselves to playing rugby in Ireland until 2016 at least.
Next on the IRFU’s list are Jamie Heaslip, Keith Earls and Ireland captain Paul O’Connell, while Dave Kearney, Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan are among a coterie of younger stars who have yet to agree new deals.
Heaslip remains the big flight risk, while Earls is attracting interest, but securing O’Brien was a big coup.
Losing the best ball carrier in Europe, a Lion who has evolved into one of the best opensides in the game, in the year before the World Cup would have been a major blow to the package the union offer players.
It ends the saga for another year and, although O’Brien won’t be playing due to injury, gives Joe Schmidt a major fillip ahead of the Six Nations.
No wonder they were in a rush to get the good word out.