Sport International Rugby

Friday 17 August 2018

Comment: Irish player drain a trickle threatening to develop into a flood

Wave of out-of-contract players will be keeping a keen eye on Peter O'Mahony contract talks

There are significant fears around Munster that Peter O’Mahony will follow Simon Zebo’s lead and spread his wings. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
There are significant fears around Munster that Peter O’Mahony will follow Simon Zebo’s lead and spread his wings. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

When does a trickle become a flood?

That is the question occupying the minds of the IRFU this morning, from the bean counters to high performance director David Nucifora, with Irish coach Joe Schmidt squeezed in the middle.

It's a bit like Frances Fitzgerald failing to remember reading emails. To allow one to pass you by is careless, allowing two of them to slip conjures up Wildean misfortune.

But three?

Munster will feel the brunt much more than Ireland; they have already lost Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo, two vital components of their team.

If they were to lose their captain - and the news unfurls on the day that their latest coach appears in public for the first time - the consequences could be dire for their ambitions.

That they are pretty much bystanders in all of this - as the contract negotiations lie at the IRFU offices, not the Munster Branch - compounds the sense of helplessness that must pervade down south.

Johann van Graan made positive noises at his unveiling yesterday about doing everything in his power to keep a player he hasn't yet spoken to at the province but the truth is he is utterly powerless.

The ball is not in his court.

Publicly, all sides will speak agreeably of the necessity to get the business done and a commitment to "do the right thing". The heavy lifting will be a private affair.

Furore

The IRFU and Schmidt have managed to silence the furore that surrounded the departures of firstly Ryan and subsequently Zebo, thanks chiefly to the emergence of stand-out stand-ins like James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale.

Some might say that the loss of O'Mahony, despite his current status as a first-choice back-row, could also be absorbed by the presence of others such as Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock and Dan Leavy. Best of luck with that.

The elephant in the room - although the IRFU may not be able to ignore it for long - concerns the centrally-contracted back-row Jamie Heaslip, whose current inactivity will, rightly or wrongly, become inextricably linked with O'Mahony's contract negotiations.

Also, the infamous unwritten IRFU policy that negates an Irish shirt to those plying their trade overseas would be tested as never before if a third player in six months were to decide to abandon the once steady ship of state.

Iain Henderson has already intimated that he may be pressed to address his own future before then, cannily assessing that often a province will attempt to confidently bargain that in exchange for the intangible worth of a player's loyalty, the tangible expressions of financial value may fall well short.

Tadhg Furlong, whose fame went global following his exploits on the Lions tour, is another case in point; his value would arguably exceed that of an O'Mahony or a Zebo as tighthead props are, pound for pound, the most coveted cuts of prime beef on the market.

CJ Stander and Garry Ringrose are also due to scramble around for a Parker Pen some time soon; Andrew Conway leads the second wave.

Can the IRFU continue to keep their finger stuck in the dyke?

The status quo has served Ireland well, even when they ignored the 'unwritten policy' when Jonathan Sexton went to France; Schmidt had only got his feet under the table and was never going to forgo the chance to start his reign without the country's most important player.

Subsequent departures didn't damage his cause as they were all players holed below the international waterline - Marty Moore, Ian Madigan, JJ Hanrahan.

But 2017 is marking a radical shift in emphasis. Schmidt nailed the nub of the matter thus.

"Should we select from outside of Ireland, because then if there are three or four other players who have substantially greater offers from somewhere else but are desperately keen to play for their country, then they may perceive that they can do both, and have both, who loses then?"

In this case, Munster - yet again.

Schmidt's point about a player perceiving they can have both seems to apply to O'Mahony's circumstances; apart from feeling undervalued, he also seems to want a deal which allows him to pursue a career abroad after the World Cup, rather than restricting him to Ireland beyond 2019.

As is his personal prerogative, he wants the cake and the right to eat it. But if he took a nibble, what would stop others doing so too, were it not for the IRFU's ability to whisk the plate away from beneath their noses?

The IRFU's main defence against foreign pursuers has been a player-welfare system in tandem with competitive national and provincial sides.

In the absence of hard cash, this is the only currency they possess to buttress the dam.

The IRFU hold the purse strings but not all the aces; housing half a dozen Irish international back-rows at Leinster, for example, while allowing one of Munster's key men in that position to leave doesn't adhere to Nucifora's policy of spreading provincial playing resources.

And with two centrally-contracted players out of favour, and two more facing indeterminate injury lay-offs - that's 25pc of the fully paid-up crew - there is an argument that the IRFU aren't getting bang for their buck as it is.

O'Mahony saw his erstwhile captain Paul O'Connell get a dream move until his body failed him and that, as well as money, will influence his call.

For the IRFU, retaining a totemic Munster captain may be a price worth paying as, lamentably, another winter of discontented contract talks wearily await us all.

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