Clock ticking for in-demand stars to make minds up
Futures of Irish quartet far from certain as IRFU deadline approaches
A NUMBER of Leinster players took to Twitter yesterday to show a lighter side to the transfer sagas their team-mates are embroiled in, but it remains to be seen whether their humour will be confined to the gallows come Six Nations time.
Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden added some levity to a situation that is getting increasingly serious as it drags on without resolution and the IRFU's deadline approaches.
The clock is ticking on the Union's attempts to sort out their remaining frontline stars' futures before the Six Nations begins and, after an initial flurry of positive activity before Christmas, their momentum appears to have stalled and the final four remain.
By the end of the month, the futures of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, Keith Earls and Paul O'Connell are likely to have been resolved one way or another.
Toulon have already hosted Heaslip for a tour of the parish and chat about his future, while O'Brien is next to head to the Cote d'Azur to see what the European champions are all about.
The French side have seemingly limitless resources and a raft of back-rows retiring or departing at the end of the season, so while the consensus appears to be that one of the two back-rows will go, there also remains every chance that both could pitch up at the Stade Felix Mayol this coming summer.
At the same time, the preferred option for the duo remains staying with the club they have won three European Cups with in the past five seasons.
The decision that they must make is whether they can afford to pass up a more lucrative offer and a change of lifestyle in sunnier climes to remain at home.
The reality for the IRFU is that they cannot match the wages offered by the big-spending French clubs. The Union was already running a deficit budget after poor five and 10-year ticket sales for the Aviva before the uncertainty over the future of European club rugby raised its ugly head, so their position at the negotiating table has been compromised to a degree.
They are hoping that the favourable playing conditions available, the fact that next season is a World Cup year and the lure of representing their home province can supplement the heavily incentivised package they are offering can keep their four stars in Ireland, while they are also doing business with another tier of players that includes Dave Kearney and Rhys Ruddock behind them.
The players face a dilemma, but so do the Union. Do they continue to offer the players what is on the table, or do they cut their losses with one to keep the other?
That could put their salary structure under pressure; players and agents talk and if they break the bank for O'Brien the likes of Peter O'Mahony, Rob Kearney and others will be fully aware of the going rate for starting internationals when they return to the negotiating table next season. So, with just weeks to go until the contract saga draws to a close, what is the state of play for the in-demand Ireland stars?
LIKELY LAD: SEAN O'BRIEN
Estimated earning potential: €550,000 p/a in France/€400,000 in Ireland
The Tullow Tank has emerged as the most likely player to depart these shores this summer as Toulon stepped up their pursuit this week. At 26, O'Brien should have his best years ahead of him, even if his injury profile is starting to look somewhat concerning.
His latest shoulder setback may be set to keep him out of the Six Nations, but that is not about to put coach Bernard Laporte and owner Mourad Boudjellal off a man they could make France's highest paid forward next season.
The Lion has arguably become Ireland's most important player over the past two seasons and his loss for the Six Nations is a major blow to Joe Schmidt.
There are fears that taking him out of the player performance management system will increase the risk of more injury and that a move to the attritional French league could shorten the abrasive back-row's career.
There is an assumption that O'Brien's strong ties to his home in Carlow and business interests could sway his decision but, if he feels that the Union's offer undervalues him and Toulon turn on the charm, then he could well be swayed.
After all, Johnny Sexton was considered a home bird too, shares the same agent in Fintan Drury and felt that the IRFU didn't do enough to keep him and look at him now.
FLIGHT RISK: JAMIE HEASLIP
Estimated earning potential: €550,000 p/a in France/€400,000 in Ireland
Given his age, superb injury record and long years of service, it had been thought that Heaslip was the favourite to make the move to France.
It could well still happen, but the Naas native's agent remains in discussions with the IRFU, having met with Toulon. The Heineken Cup winners have yet to make their offer.
The Ireland vice-captain, Schmidt has spoken of his former club player as a successor to Paul O'Connell at national level, while he is the de facto skipper of Leinster as Leo Cullen's career continues to wind down.
The top-paid player in the country, Heaslip could be the victim of these straitened times with the basic pay on offer from the IRFU down on his circa €450,000 per year current deal.
But the incentives available would cover much of the difference if he was to hit his targets. Rarely injured and almost always available for selection, the 30-year-old looks set to have a longer career than most professional forwards and may pass on this opportunity with a view to making the move in two years time, after the World Cup.
Then again, if Toulon make an eye-watering offer he can't refuse, then he would be mad not to take it.
DARK HORSE: KEITH EARLS
Estimated earning potential: €300,000 in France/England/€200,000-€225,000 in Ireland
With Heaslip and O'Brien hogging most of the transfer headlines, Earls has been bubbling under.
Munster could be quite pleased with the business done in December as they secured the futures of Conor Murray and Donnacha Ryan, but they still have some unfinished work to do.
With a young family and also strong ties to his native Limerick, Earls is expected to continue with the province, but whether the IRFU can match his valuation of himself remains to be seen.
There are interested parties in a player who is set for a fight for his Ireland spot next month, with London Irish believed to be among his suitors, but, at 26, he may feel that another spell at home would do just fine before a re-evaluation in two or three years' time.
SAFE BET: PAUL O'CONNELL
Estimated earning potential: €300,000-350,000 in Ireland, France
O'Connell set alarm bells ringing when he let his guard down and spoke of a move to pastures new earlier this season, but the Ireland captain looks set to finish his career a one-province man when the finer points of his new deal are finally worked out.
Given how the inspirational second-row has been afflicted by injuries over the past three seasons, the French giants would be taking a gamble, but, such is his influence for Munster and Ireland, the totemic O'Connell is likely to continue to be one of the key players in the system until the World Cup at least.