IRFU should not play games with players' careers -- Byrne
SHANE BYRNE still regrets leaving Leinster for Saracens in 2005, but the former hooker feels he wasn't left with much of a choice by the IRFU.
As he observes Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and the rest of the out-of-contract players contemplate their futures, Byrne can empathise with their dilemma. He felt the union undervalued him and made the decision to leave. Almost a decade on, he can see the same issue running through negotiations.
Johnny Sexton became the most high-profile player to depart when he signed for Racing Metro last season, though fears of the floodgates opening have yet to materialise -- even if the Leinster back-rows remain major flight risks. For former Ireland and Lions man Byrne, the nature of his career, with opportunity knocking towards the end, forced his hand and he hopes that the union are not making the same mistakes again.
"It was horrendous," he recalled. "I didn't want to leave, pure and simple. Leinster did everything they could at the time, but it was an argument with the IRFU.
"Everything in my career came very late and I was hoping to get, in the last couple of years, what I thought was deserved for that time and their opinion was completely the opposite, despite the Lions (selection) coming around.
"That was a hard wrench and that is something that will sit hard with them (Heaslip and O'Brien). They've achieved so much under the blue banner, it is a real family and that is one thing the Irish provinces have.
"As we've seen from Jonathan Sexton, he'd still prefer to be in Dublin, but he has that bank balance I suppose. If you look at it that way, not to sound coarse, but they are professionals and in their mid-30s it's gone, their earning potential is finished. They have to take this opportunity when they have it."
The disconnect between the union and the provinces has been a recurring theme in recent seasons, with Sexton in particular hitting out at the administrators for their role in his departure. Byrne believes that the IRFU can make life easier by laying their cards on the table earlier and making negotiations more straightforward, while he is surprised the provinces haven't been more creative when trying to keep their big names.
"The market has changed, no doubt about it, but I would have thought that the provinces might have been able to supplement contracts or that individual sponsorships might be more openly accepted," he said.
"We're still constrained by the fact that we only have so many people playing rugby. There is only so much money to be made, so you can understand that, like the Sexton thing, they can't afford to go to certain levels.
"But they should go to the maximum that they can go and then at least they can put their hands up. They shouldn't play games with guy's careers and that's what you don't like seeing. If the guy has a value, then they should match that value and if someone comes in with a much bigger offer that they can't match, then they have to put their hands up and say 'we can't reach that' and leave it to the players to make the decision."
Of more immediate concern is this week's Heineken Cup action and Byrne is excited by the opportunities that a number of young players are likely to be afforded by injury this week. Munster's Duncan Casey is one who could see game time if Damien Varley can't shake off his foot injury.
"Last weekend he had 100pc (throwing record), I don't think Munster have been 100pc in the line-out for a while," he said of Casey's display against Ulster.
"They built their comeback on top of him hitting his darts, it was great to see. When opportunity knocks you have got to be ready. You can do the training, get your skills up but you have to take it.
"Look at Jordi Murphy, you couldn't have timed it better. With the debate that's going on with Sean and Jamie, here's a guy with a fair amount of caps, he's not just a guy arriving on the scene, but he's built himself up, built his power and he has really taken his opportunity.
"He sits into No 7, he excels at No 8. Everybody hopes we don't lose Jamie, but it's great to see that there's somebody there."
As for this week's Heineken Star Predictions, Byrne is confident of an Irish clean sweep from the four provinces.