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Contract cock-up points Fitzgerald towards exit door

That Irish rugby, like the good Lord, sometimes work in mysterious ways is a long-established fact. Last week they reached new levels, however, with the publication of the status of a top player's current contractual negotiations, including existing and proposed salary levels, in a national newspaper.

The word is that the figures quoted in The Irish Times in connection with Luke Fitzgerald's prolonged contract negotiations were correct. It was reported that he had been offered a new deal "which would represent a drop of 30per cent from his current basic".

It's hardly surprising that discussion was generated among rugby folk -- surely professional players are entitled to the same privacy about their employment terms as anyone else?

Debate has centred on the newspaper's source. When one examines who stood to gain, it's difficult to see how either the player or his advisers could benefit -- publicising the player's conditions would obviously undermine their negotiating position with other parties. On the other hand, the authorities could potentially damage Fitzgerald's bargaining power elsewhere and make it more likely that he would have to accept their relatively modest offer.

It seems clear that the player's position has been prejudiced; the only real question is whether it was prompted by a deliberate move on the part of (a) his agent, (b) Leinster/IRFU or (c) an individual within either who went on a solo run. I'd hazard a fiver on (c), that some genius, frustrated by the idiosyncrasies of the negotiation process, decided to force the issue.

What has perhaps not yet received sufficient attention, though former international Denis Hickie did allude to it on radio, is how the union can justify slashing the basic pay of one of its primary assets by as much as 30 per cent. If the figures mentioned are accurate, and there's no reason to believe otherwise, no one will be surprised that Fitzgerald has chosen not to accept, particularly when it's well-known in rugby circles that older and less gifted players have recently negotiated more lucrative contracts.

It's difficult to imagine an alternative course now for Fitzgerald other than to exit, given the gross mishandling of his situation and the sundering of relationships. In that event, the person for whom I've most sympathy, apart from the Leinster fans, is coach Joe Schmidt. That he and Leinster CEO Mick Dawson can have no influence over this situation is farcical, and this is where a huge flaw in the system has been exposed.

Amateurs still make the important decisions, leaving the professionals -- from the union CEO Philip Browne to the provincial CEOs and coaches -- to deal with the fallout.

The perspectives of the three giants of the Irish game who retired last week on life with Irish rugby officialdom would indeed be fascinating. Jerry Flannery, Bob Casey and Shane Horgan would each have different stories to tell but I suspect a common thread would be insights that the union could learn from -- that is, of course, if it was disposed to listen.

I managed a national under 19 squad in 1997 which included Bob and, despite a career-threatening injury, he was too bright and proud to moan about his predicament and was a wonderful contributor to a very happy squad. His subsequent career with London Irish was stellar, hallmarked with a professionalism and humility that was total. He exploited his talent to the maximum by playing in one of the most demanding leagues in the world for a over a decade. That he won only seven caps reflects on successive national managements rather than on the player, but if being a professional is about doing an outstanding job for the unit that pays the wages then Bob Casey has been exemplary.

Jerry Flannery was another who should have won more caps. A hugely gifted player, injuries prevented him from being an even more dominant figure for both Munster and Ireland. Injury-free and in his pomp, Flannery was among the best hookers in the game. Technically proficient and dynamic around the pitch, he was key to many of Ireland's better performances and pivotal to the Grand Slam in 2009.

Brian O'Driscoll remarked that the tributes to Shane Horgan were such that they sounded like eulogies but everything said about his contribution is justified. When he first arrived in Donnybrook from Drogheda in the summer of 1997 as a raw 18-year-old, he immediately displayed a steely determination beyond his years, a welcome trait not exactly commonplace among Leinster teams of the time; 15 years later that same quality, now an integral part of Leinster's DNA and never more so than in Cardiff last May, is his proud and lasting legacy to the province. He has been an immense figure, hugely talented and with an unerring ability to perform on the big occasion.

It's difficult now to believe that he missed out on Ireland's Grand Slam in 2009 but his two Heineken Cups reflect the enormity of his contribution to Leinster. What is perhaps less well appreciated is his intelligence and judgement, the benefits of which he has freely given to many and which, if the blazers have any sense at all, would be something Irish rugby will tap into for the benefit of future generations.

All three deserve to enjoy their retirements and good luck to you all in whatever the future brings. All the very best to Luke Fitzgerald too -- you have a long career to which you can look forward.

jglennon@independent.ie

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