Monday 18 December 2017

Jamie Heaslip: Should he stay?...or should he go?

Ruaidhri O'Connor argues that Jamie Heaslip is better off sticking with the devil he knows while David Kelly feels the time is right for Leinster No 8 to move on -- and stresses the decision should be his alone

Jamie Heaslip
Jamie Heaslip


GETTING inside the mind of Jamie Heaslip has never been an easy thing to do. Whether it is interviewing the Ireland vice captain, assessing the choices he makes or just observing him do his job on the park he has never fit the mould of an Irish rugby player.

Of course, he has always strived to be different. The tongue ring, the restaurant, appearing at digital summits, the insistence that he wasn't that interested in upcoming opponents or really that fussed about rugby away from the field have all fed into an image that has served to make the Naas native one of the most divisive figures in the game in Ireland.

Heaslip moving to France would fit the image of the rugby anti-hero that the 30-year-old has long been cultivating, and who wouldn't be attracted by life sipping coffee on the Cote d'Azur? As lifestyle choices go, moving to Toulon or Montpellier is as attractive as they come.

As he toured the sun-kissed training facilities and met the money men over the past few days, Monsieur Heaslip may have been impressed, but if he managed to catch his team face Ulster it would have been interesting to know how he felt as an increasingly impressive Jordi Murphy led Leinster to victory.

For, despite the nonchalant image, this is the man whose record as captain of his province is nigh on impeccable, whose performance levels rarely dip below stellar and who is consistently recognised by some of the best coaches in rugby as a leader of men.

He is the captain-in-waiting for both club and country, has won three European Cups, a two Celtic Leagues and a Challenge Cup with his home province and is a five-Test Lion who performed well in the series against Australia before being controversially dropped along with Brian O'Driscoll for the final Test.

Described by Munster captain and Ireland team-mate Peter O'Mahony as "the ultimate professional" and "someone I'd have looked up to," this is a player who commands the respect of his peers in Irish rugby.

These are the reasons he is coveted in the south of France, but that professionalism and drive -- masked by his off-pitch persona at times -- are also the reasons that he should stay for one more contract before heading off on his yacht.

And, as he watched the 22-year-old Murphy lay down a marker in the jersey he has owned for most of the past nine seasons, that professional would have been stirred.

One of the key things to note about weekend reports of his move to Toulon edging closer was that Heaslip does not want to leave. If he did, it is unlikely the transfer details would have found their way into the public domain.

Money remains at the heart of the issue, with the IRFU tightening their belts and their highest paid player getting squeezed as a result.

But, as he viewed the glitz and glamour of his French suitors last weekend, he would have looked at the wise old men who inhabit the Toulon dressing-room and wondered, is now the right time to go?

Jonny Wilkinson, Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha et al have done their time in the international arena and have the medals to prove it.

Toulouse is their post-international retirement home where they are continuing their successful post-Test careers in style and with no little achievement.

Heaslip has a Grand Slam, sure, but more than four years have passed since that fateful day in Cardiff and the Ireland team has been almost completely overhauled in the time being during a period of underachievement for the national team.

Sure, he would continue to be picked for his country if a move was completed as he remains the pre-eminent player in his position, but Toulon would not be shelling out more than half a million a year for a squad player.

He may be 'Mr Indestructible' in Irish terms, but as he enters his 30s Heaslip must be mindful that the Irish system offers him protection from the rigours of the life of a professional.

He wants to play, but as he enjoys his 'booster weeks' and sits out the derbies in preparation for the Six Nations he should realise that this a perk that perhaps money can't buy.

There might be less cash on offer this time around, but the change to the tax laws will allow him an opportunity to gain one more contract abroad in 2016 if he signs a two-year extension to stay.

That will allow him to succeed Paul O'Connell and Leo Cullen as skipper for Ireland and Leinster, give the 2015 World Cup a proper go and try and win two more Heineken Cups with his province.

It will also keep him fresh enough to make that move. His injury profile and seeming immunity from breakdown will mean that, while the lucre may not be quite as enticing, he'll still have good offers for one last trip before retirement.

With his agents IKON Talent and the IRFU at a stand-off, it appears the next move is Heaslip's to make.

He has two attractive propositions on the table, but one can wait. He has unfinished business to complete at home first. RO'C



BREAKING NEWS! Jamie Heaslip is on the verge of signing for France. At this stage, you'd really wish that all the smart suits at IKON Talent and the IRFU would just book a room in the Burlo, let each other see their briefs and just get down to the business.

Seeing as he was given a couple of weeks off by his current employers -- in order to, so we are led to believe via 'press release', engage in talks with another potential employer -- perhaps Heaslip himself might put his oar in.

After all, this is his future and heaven forfend he should end up weeping miserably on his bed as he contemplates the appalling prospect of being forced to sign a contract worth somewhere considerably north of 50,000 smackeroos a month.

All this raising of hemlines and fluttering of eyelashes -- much of it via an indulgently complicit media of which this organ is not alone -- is becoming a little bit boring. It reminds one of the old Dublin gag that a man's idea of foreplay is a half hour of begging.

The two sides -- Heaslip's agents and the IRFU's money men -- are seemingly so distant now that it is difficult to delineate where the sabre rattling ends and the news begins.

The last time we checked, Heaslip was a fully matured 30-year-old adult who is capable of making life-affirming decisions off his own bat.

Being the son of a peripatetic paternal figure of huge influence, Heaslip does not need the finer points of the current crossroads explained at any great length to him.

His may be a career-changing decision -- but it is stretching the truth ludicrously to define it as career-defining.

Heaslip wants to stay at Leinster, as both he and the latest tittle tattle have re-affirmed -- indeed everyone from his club coach to his faithful mutt has declared that Heaslip wants to stay in Leinster beneath the aegis of the IRFU.

We are not yet certain that we have ever heard anyone, either two-legged or four-legged, declaring that Heaslip would be interested in playing for either Toulon or Montpellier. So what's the catch?

It's the dirty word that dare not speak its name in Irish rugby -- money. Heaslip wants a certain amount. The IRFU don't want to give him that amount. Checkmate.

Cue daily missals of increasingly urgent copy and broadcasts from former team-mates and pundits breathlessly declaring their empathy for this tragic first-world dilemma.

Cosy IRFU loyalists will shriek that playing in France is almost akin to inflicting genocide on Irish players; the irony of Ireland's embarrassing 2013 Six Nations when the squad suffered casualties akin to a Saturday night in Temple Bar clearly eludes some folk.

The example of Johnny Sexton is often erroneously deployed; despite evidence showing that a Lions tour into July is more detrimental to a player's health than doing what should come naturally to a professional rugby player -- playing matches.

Many were mischievously swift to accuse the perfidious Parisiens of interrupting Sexton's November series -- even though a two-hour kicking session on Ireland duty (on his day off) was the real reason he missed the opening Samoan game.

The French said not a word that their prime piece of beef, for whom they had paid top dollar, was returned to them in damaged form. And yet the whinging from this side of the water was pitiful to behold.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has, interestingly given his background in French rugby, led the charge with his less than subtle hints that skipping this country may be bad for your international health.

He was less than enamoured when the predictable "Conor Murray to join 12 French clubs" stories started popping up just before the November games.

It will take a big character to defy Schmidt; Heaslip is one though -- any decision the player makes should be based upon his own professional and personal desires.

It would be sad if this endless saga demeaned itself for the sake of a relatively insignificant sum. And please let nobody patronise the Leinster or Ireland supporters by implying that, were it not for his presence in Dublin, somehow his burgeoning restaurant business may implode. Does he need to pull down the shutters every night?

The argument about "being paid what he's worth" really doesn't cut it any more; the IRFU are immersed in a cash crisis and even the great Brian O'Driscoll was forced to take a hit. Paul O'Connell will, too, when his people sign on the dotted line imminently.

We fear to contemplate how Sean O'Brien's latest injury will have affected his ongoing talks; the phone lines from France may soon go silent on that one, in turn causing the IRFU to knock another few quid off their offer.

Nobody is paid their worth in this country any more as the IRFU have suffered financially like every other Joe Soap Ltd in the land.

That they can still spend enough to churn out players such as, say, Jordi Murphy, a potentially explosive and, handily, rather less expensive replacement for Heaslip, represents their major responsibility to the future health of the game in this country.

If this is solely about maximising his wondrous talents, grappling the wonders of another country's culture and sporting philosophy and ensuring that he can still have the best of both worlds -- for club and country -- then it really is a no-brainer.

Heaslip should go. If, instead, this whole rigmarole simply involves Heaslip and the IRFU haggling for a few dollars more, it would be heavenly to fast forward to the final frame shoot-out.

Because this is one spaghetti western that is becoming more difficult to swallow with every passing day. dk

Irish Independent

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