Wednesday 21 March 2018

Loyalty still a valuable currency for IRFU

Keeping O'Connell another enormous boost in daunting battle with wealthy European rivals

Munster's Paul O'Connell acknowledges supporters after victory over Edinburgh
Munster's Paul O'Connell acknowledges supporters after victory over Edinburgh
David Kelly

David Kelly

Another day, another circus.

Social media was a hubbub of viral whispers. Radio dials were switched incessantly for any confirmation of the rumour. Ultimately, the Irish public gleaned the answer that it seemed so many were desperately craving: Garth Brooks would be playing here this summer.

Meanwhile, under the radar, in typically understated fashion, far more important cultural news was being unveiled as Paul O'Connell committed his future to the IRFU.

No elaborate visits to the south of France were required. No incessantly opaque leaks to a variety of media dressed up as press releases. And not a check shirt in sight.

If O'Connell was guilty of anything during contract negotiations which, we are led to believe, were just as convoluted as those involving his Ireland team-mates, it was when he spoke to an English colleague late last year.

During the course of this conversation, O'Connell, whose keen intellect betrays an awkwardness in delivering grand public statements, spoke genuinely about his regret at not playing abroad and such.

To say that he was taken aback by the subsequent headline - 'I'm ready to leave Ireland and cash in and experience life abroad' - was an understatement, if only another example of a player not taking an extra second to think before they speak. From that moment on, however, O'Connell remained determined to keep his thoughts to himself.

In truth, as those close to the former Lions captain and current Ireland leader attest, there was really never any doubt that he would stay with his beloved Munster even if, as may seem likely, he was forced to take another marginal pay cut to his basic wage.

O'Connell is now 34 and, though there are few who doubt his capacity to fulfil all of his new two-year deal, and perhaps one final fling beyond that, injuries have taken their toll, even if he is playing now with the liberated freshness of a 24-year-old.

The Ireland captaincy was a crucial component in his decision-making process. As well as cushioning the blow of perhaps another five-figure sum being lopped off his annual take-home pay packet, he remains embedded within Irish and, of course, Munster rugby culture.


Having dropped from about €400,000 per annum to approximately €350,000 a year for his last deal, he is now likely to have dropped a further €30,000 or so, although there would be bonuses, including those befitting his status as captain, which will ensure his net income will stay largely the same.

O'Connell also remains a popular commercial figure, an eminence that would inevitably be diluted were he not within this jurisdiction and, with a World Cup campaign as captain to come, his pulling power for commercial clients remains impressive.

Certainly, an old comrade of his, David Wallace, feels that O'Connell was never realistically going to have his head turned by the French market forces which are so rampant currently.

"He did get married in France," Wallace smiles. "Listen, Munster is in his blood and there's no other place he'd rather be. It's one thing going away to sign for a lot of money, but he cares so much about the team that he couldn't walk away from it." That was the prevailing mood during his negotiations, regardless of whatever purported deals from elsewhere that may or may not have been on the table - mercifully, we have been spared a daily drip-feed of such tittle-tattle.

While Jamie Heaslip's deal remains unsigned - we are told that negotiations are still ongoing, despite French reports that he has already committed to the IRFU - the much put-upon blazers in IRFU HQ have emerged with much credit in an industry that is undergoing so much flux.

As we write, there is still no confirmation if O'Connell et al will have a serviceable European competition to play in next season - that endless saga too may resolve itself soon without English involvement. But for the IRFU to keep their heads while the rest of Europe is losing theirs is some achievement and deserving of respect.

"After Johnny Sexton going away, people were worrying that the floodgates might open and they certainly seemed to be creaking a little bit," notes Wallace.

"It's a positive that we're keeping the main guys at home; the player welfare and the management we can give them is much better here.

"When you look at the money on offer, it would be no fault of the IRFU if they decided to let players go. They're doing all they can.

"Possibly in previous years there was a bit of complacency. But I think with Johnny going to France, that has woken them up a bit. They seem to be doing a lot more. It's becoming a more competitive environment because the money is so significant."

It is an issue - to say otherwise would insult the intelligence of even a small child - but thankfully in rugby it is not the only factor.

Equally, to isolate loyalty is also over-stretching things. Sometimes, however, the twain can co-exist.

Happily, in the case of O'Connell and so many other players, this continues to be the case in a sport accelerating from one existential crisis to another.

Irish rugby remains, for now, a repository of common sense and financial prudence.

How long that stays the case is anyone's guess.

Perhaps, like O'Connell and many of his colleagues, it is easier for Irish rugby to live in the moment and enjoy what it has for now.

Gambling on a player's livelihood - for all involved - is a risky business at the best of times.

In the worst, and the IRFU's accounts scream such a scenario, expectations must be reined in and to do so while retaining their best players is a heady enough achievement in such a time of flux.

Irish Independent

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