Wednesday 17 October 2018

Comment: Shelling out to keep star men a price worth paying for IRFU

Talking Point

Munster are hoping that Peter O’Mahony (left) is not lost to a big-money club like Simon Zebo (right) was before him. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster are hoping that Peter O’Mahony (left) is not lost to a big-money club like Simon Zebo (right) was before him. Photo: Sportsfile
Munster will be looking to IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora (pictured) to loosen the purse strings of the Union. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For the IRFU, every contract is a value judgement.

The methods with which value is assessed lie at the heart of the story around the current raft of negotiations under way in Irish rugby. What represents value to kingmaker David Nucifora does not necessarily equate to what is important to the player, the fans or the provinces.

On paper, Peter O'Mahony's worth as a centrally contracted player can be called into question.

In reality, his value to Munster and, in turn, Ireland is so significant that he is a player they should go to war for.

Nucifora employs business intelligence analyst Claire Wallace to run the numbers on each player and her calculations form a large part of his decisions when it comes to contract renewals.

Injury profile, minutes played and contribution across games are all taken into account as negotiations get under way. Often, a player and his agent's assessment of where he stands is quite different to where the IRFU see him.

The employment of analytics is undoubtedly smart and follows along similar lines to the Moneyball revolution in American sports and football, but it cannot be the only metric that the powers that be deploy when deciding how much a player is worth.

Take Jamie Heaslip, who signed a two-year deal midway through this year's Six Nations. Nucifora hailed his high standards and consistency and the Leinster star's record was exemplary.

Less than a month after his contract was announced, he injured his back and hasn't played since.

So, measuring a player's value based on their past performance comes with a risk.

Measuring his leadership skills, his contribution to the connection between fans and team, his position as the iconic figure of his generation is not something you can do on a spreadsheet and so Munster must put the case and hope they'll listen.

For Ireland, O'Mahony is an important player but he is replaceable.

If he were to leave, Rhys Ruddock could step in and take his place. Alternatively, the savings could be ploughed into keeping CJ Stander on board and then room could be found for Jack Conan in the back-row.

Of course, Heaslip is also on the books until the World Cup and while he was fit Joe Schmidt couldn't find room for O'Mahony in his first choice back-row. The No 8's return remains up in the air, but if he does make it back he complicates the picture.

The gamble for the union in low-balling O'Mahony is that the calibre of club hoping to lure him won't match Munster's prestige, the money won't replace his connection to home and desire to play at the next World Cup.

While the unwritten rule was broken for Johnny Sexton, no one else based abroad has been selected under Joe Schmidt.

For all of his undoubted ability, it seems highly unlikely that the policy would be risked for a player who plays in one of the most competitive positions in the squad.

And yet, the union prize their capacity to keep the best home-grown players in Ireland and while Sexton turned his back on their brinkmanship they haven't lost a pivotal player since.

The departures of Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo were blows to the depth-chart and weaken the overall squad picture but Schmidt is confident in being able to replace them from within.

For Johann van Graan, however, the equation is very different. Losing three men who would undoubtedly start a Champions Cup for Munster weakens his hand significantly.

And while Zebo and Ryan are home-grown figures who represented the province with pride, O'Mahony is different.

He has been their captain since he took over from Doug Howlett at 23. At a time of coaching flux, the skipper is a man who sets the tone around the place - representing their values and challenging those around him.

Off the pitch, having a man who was chosen to lead the Lions is a valuable commodity in selling your club to advertisers, coaches and new players.

Although O'Mahony's departure could ultimately lead to more money for Stander, the South African will also be monitoring his captain's movements closely and vice-versa.

At 27 and 28, both players are yet to win a senior trophy with the province. If either follows Zebo and Ryan out the exit doors, their chances of doing so lessen further.

Schmidt and Nucifora played a role in hiring Van Graan and now they need to back him. A weakened Munster is no good for the overall picture and allowing the captain to leave for the sake of €100,000 or €200,000 a season would be a mistake.

After all, this is an organisation that spent €1.75m on the failed bid to bring the 2023 Rugby World Cup to Ireland, that brings in €73m in revenue from 'representative matches' and spends €41m on the professional game.

The market they operate in is a constantly changing one but there are only certain players who can command the biggest salaries that would tempt a senior international away from their home province.

The additional revenue from the South African teams joining the Guinness PRO14 increased the income streams, but not in a way that would significantly strengthen the Irish provinces' hands.

So, the union are key to retaining the top players in Ireland on national deals, of which there are fewer to go around in the last few seasons.

A number are up for discussion currently, with O'Mahony putting a New Year deadline on his deal. Others will watch closely.

Players rarely expect the IRFU to match the money on offer in England or France, they simply want to know that their employers value their contribution and pay them accordingly.

So, the saga continues and ultimately the back and forth will end.

Each season, the same dance is danced but the conditions around the IRFU are constantly changing. Players have better options and are starting to take them.

Losing O'Mahony or Stander would send out all the wrong messages about where Irish rugby is going. Retaining them will be worth the cost.

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