Thursday 22 March 2018

Alan Quinlan: Signing a Pocock, Carter or Williams is possible if we forget about second rate imports

Dan Carter during the Rugby World Cup final
Dan Carter during the Rugby World Cup final

Alan Quinlan

This was a time of the year that I never really enjoyed as a player away from the field. Every second year or so you had the prospect of contract negotiations hanging over your head.

There were plenty of questions to be asked: Will I get a new deal? Is it time to move on to pastures new? What are the other lads getting? What should I be asking for?

As it happened, often times I was either rehabbing an injury or on the road to recovery when contract talk came up, which made it extra concerning for me. There was always the doubt that the injury might cause you to miss out on a contract or be offered a reduced deal.

These things play on the minds of rugby players to varying degrees - you'd be cold-blooded if they didn't.

The policy now to have these deals done and dusted by Christmas is a great idea. Whether it's iron-clad or just the way they do business now, for player and province it's ideal to know what you're doing the following season at least six months in advance.

In the last couple of weeks we've seen CJ Stander, Rory Best, Rob Herring and Kieran Marmion all announced as having signed new deals.

In recent years Leinster have waited to announce their contracts in one bundle later in the year, but the agreements will have been reached and signed behind closed doors.

I will be really interested to see what Irish internationals are signed up to new deals in the next few weeks, though.

I wonder will we see one or two of them tempted by the massive wages on offer in England and France?

After Johnny Sexton left for France there was a belief that his departure might trigger an exodus.

Here was the top Irish player of the time leaving to play in Paris, but to date he remains the only current international to have made the move. Paul O'Connell is retired and is at the tail end of his career, but will the likes of Simon Zebo (right), Cian Healy or Ian Madigan contemplate a switch in the coming months?

We've seen in the past the likes of Leo Cullen, Geordan Murphy, Trevor Brennan, Eoin Reddan and Mike Ross that go and make a name for themselves abroad; some of them came back and were really successful internationals.

Trevor went to France before it was such a lucrative destination, but he flourished in Toulouse and became a cult hero out there. Mick O'Driscoll had a spell in Perpignan and came home an improved player too.

But the tried and tested route to the top for Irish players is through the provincial system.

The top players in Ireland are well aware of the rigours that a couple of seasons in France would present.

Sexton was pulled from Billy to Jack for the first year of his time in Racing Metro especially. He played his first game for Racing Metro less than five weeks after the third Lions Test in Australia.

By the time the Six Nations came around he had a continuous 12 months of rugby under his belt after his injury the previous season.

He will have told all of the international lads how tough it was out there, having to go back to France in the middle of the Six Nations on the week off, and as a result I'd say a few lads have been turned off the move.

That sort of flogging of players doesn't happen here any more, not since the advent of the player welfare scheme in Ireland.

Look at the teams named this weekend. Sexton is not involved for Leinster; Donnacha Ryan is not there for Munster; Zebo sat out last week's game against Connacht.

The IRFU know how to protect their prize assets now and a busy end to the season and summer is followed by a staggered pre-season return. Players also get regular rest weeks in the season, which is a huge benefit to them.

But still, you'd have to imagine that the lure of the Mediterranean is great for players who are coming to the end of the international careers. Why wouldn't you take the mega-deal and give your family a small bit of comfort in the years to come, while still giving yourself the best chance to win trophies?

And it's silverware that is the biggest attraction for top international players. Top players yearn for medals and lifting trophies, that's what drives them on as the years tick away in their careers.

For years Irish players regarded the home provinces as being the best clubs in the continent. We are well behind the best now, after three years without the top European trophy.

Ask yourself, could you see a player like Dan Carter signing for an Irish province now? It's being reported that he will earn up on €1.5m a year when image rights are taken into consideration.

Today there is no way the Irish provinces could even contemplate paying half of that money on one contract.

But we need to be able to attract those world-class players here for our provinces to be successful again.

But they need to be the top players in the world, not the level below that.

Currently, the big three provinces are permitted to sign four non-Irish players and one project player for each season.

Connacht have really made the most of their status and overseas recruits like Bundee Aki, Aly Muldowney and Tom McCartney are driving their standards up.

But elsewhere, apart from one or two exceptions, I don't see any of the imports making a huge contribution to their teams.

Francis Saili has the potential to be an excellent player for Munster; Wiehahn Herbst and Nick Williams are putting in strong performances in Ulster, and Charles Piutau will be excellent next year; Isa Nacewa is a quality operator in Leinster; but other than that the standard is decent at best.

What would happen if just two or three non-Irish qualified players slots were used in a province and the extra budget was then used to go after a truly world-class player?

That way we'd cut out a lot of the waste of money on average players; we could potentially target some of the world's top stars, while freeing up an extra place in the squad for young Irish players to get their chance.

Imagine the buzz there'd be in the RDS, Thomond Park or Kingspan Stadium if a province could bring in a David Pocock or Sonny Bill Williams? It would get backsides back on seats and we'd start seeing bigger sponsors interested in rugby again.

Let's face it, it's a tough sell right now for the provinces and they need every bit of help they can get.

If we sign overseas players to our four provinces, now more than ever, we have to be sure that they will really make a difference to the squad. Back in my day we signed Doug Howlett at Munster and he was a real superstar.

You could see his quality from the minute he arrived in the door. He is still the All Blacks' top try scorer and he made such a massive difference to us. He drove up standards all around the place.

But Dougie came to Munster armed with the knowledge that he was joining a province with a real tradition. He could have signed for a French team, earned lots of money and retired to the sun, but he chose to come to Munster because of what we had achieved in the past and what rugby means to the province.

A province's tradition is no longer enough to attract top players, I'm afraid.

The Carter transfer is an interesting one, though. It is said that as part of the deal, he has an arrangement with L'Oreal for his image rights. Is that something that could be explored in Ireland? Even if the super-contract idea was adopted I think we'd still need another sweetener to match the deals on offer from the likes of Toulon or Clermont in France.

For sure the pressure is now on the IRFU and the provinces themselves to attract the big industries to invest in players, but I can't see another way for Irish teams to get back into the top two or three in Europe in the near future.

We need to attract the world's best players here - not second-rate imports - and we need them to play alongside our own talented stars.

Keeping our best players and attracting the elite is crucial. It's no roadmap to success, but it's an idea.

Irish Independent

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