Sunday 22 April 2018

Alan Quinlan - The timing of the Peter O'Mahony contract story couldn't be worse for Munster

O'Mahony and Stander being tempted by rich clubs in England and France just doesn't bear thinking about for province's fans

CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony are vital to Munster
CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony are vital to Munster

Alan Quinlan

It's starting to feel like one thing after another for Munster, and the prospect of losing Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander would be a kick in the teeth for everyone associated with the province.

Every time this group of players are almost back on their feet, it feels like the rug is being pulled from underneath them.

The dizzying injections of money in England and France are bound to turn the heads of the sport's top players, but Peter and CJ are Munster's heart and soul. Losing them would be nothing short of catastrophic and would reduce Thomond's beating drum to a faint pulse.

Peter and CJ are embedded in the culture, they've been through a lot of the adversity with Axel, losing matches, the negativity, they're the ones - along with Conor Murray - who can lift Munster back to European rugby's top table.

If the back-row duo were to go it could push Munster into free-fall. British and Irish Lions back-rowers are impossible to replace in the current climate; the bulging coffers in England and France guarantee first dibs on the world's best available players.

The timing of the O'Mahony story couldn't have been much worse from a Munster perspective; the squad have just reunited after the international window and are looking towards what will be a season-defining block of games in the PRO14 and Europe, all while adjusting to a new voice at the helm.

The Simon Zebo move is still being digested, so news that Peter rejected the IRFU's contract offer will have caused heartburn among many Munster fans.

Losing another one, or possibly two, of their world-class players would be the last thing Munster need.

Leo Cullen probably wouldn't bat an eyelid if someone like Jordi Murphy or one or two of the other guys were to leave because they have such phenomenal depth, something Munster cannot come close to matching at the moment.

Munster have had no luck in the last few months with Rassie Erasmus leaving, Zebo confirming his departure, and a spate of injuries to the likes of Gerbrandt Grobler (rubbing more salt in the second-row wound after the loss of Donnacha Ryan to Racing) and Jaco Taute, and more recently Keith Earls, Tyler Bleyendaal, Tommy O'Donnell, James Cronin, and Niall Scannell. Hearing this week that the province's successor to Paul O'Connell, the natural captain, someone who has such great passion for Munster, could potentially be leaving - as a Munster fan you can't help but think, 'what's going to be next?'

Finances are an issue but I think the IRFU need to be careful that Munster don't slip back and go into reverse.

From what was such a devastating scenario the year before with what happened with Anthony, the way the players galvanised, the way it came together, there was a great feeling and spirit back in the organisation again. The IRFU cannot allow that to regress.

Outside investment may have to be considered if this becomes a recurring theme, although that would bring a whole new complexity to the situation.

Outside investment could be dangerous too because then you have to ask, 'where does it stop? Where is it controlled from?'.

From an Irish team point of view, do you do it for one player and not for another player?

From a provincial perspective I think there should be some outside investment sought for certain players if possible if that's what's required to keep the key men.

The IRFU need to keep their top players, whatever it takes, and it's imperative that they don't allow a process to start where the cream of our crop start leaving with a World Cup coming into view. It could have a negative effect for years to come.

I would have thought that O'Mahony's contract would have been one of the more straightforward deals for the IRFU. In my playing days the contracts of the top players were generally sorted quickly.

When you had someone on your books in as high demand as Brian O'Driscoll, the IRFU knew they needed to keep him - not only to bolster the national team but also to make a statement around their own ambitions, and prevent an exodus of top players.

The IRFU can't match every offer, it's just not feasible. The key is that they must table a deal that isn't a million miles away from what the player could earn overseas.

The added carrots of playing for Ireland, international match fees, and better player welfare at home should then make up the difference - we've seen it before with Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip when they had eye-watering offers from France.

When I was starting out with Munster, I was shocked to hear that Cardiff, London Irish and Bath were looking to sign me, and in later years I had an opportunity to go to France, but I felt I was being looked after well at home.

I never wanted to go once I got a decent offer. Besides, the contracts weren't for the sort of life-changing money that is circulating in professional rugby now.

While my gut tells me Peter will stay, he will only do so if he feels he is offered a contract that matches what he believes is his true value to Munster and Ireland.

From his perspective, the timing for these negotiations couldn't be much better.

It was fewer than nine months ago that a Heaslip injury opened the door for O'Mahony to play a prominent role in a memorable victory against England and begin a sharp career ascent that saw him named Lions captain for the first Test against New Zealand.

Not only did Peter's rise to such a coveted role indicate his true value to Munster and Ireland, having been sidelined for so long with a serious knee injury, but it also would have caught the attention of European rugby's fat cats.

Peter has an opportunity to double his salary by making the move overseas, while CJ could treble his pay packet by plying his trade in France.

Of course loyalty is important, but when you consider these things in simple terms, and how you would react to such an offer in your chosen field, it's a lot easier to understand why players would be tempted.

It doesn't matter who you are in the context of Irish rugby, what your level is, how connected you are to your province - when you go in the door in the evening and you look at your wife and kids and you think about your future, the money does matter.

Andrew Conway is another player whose contract is up next summer, and like Peter and CJ, he is the type of player Munster will be looking to build their next few years around.

From an Irish perspective there are a couple of other key players who need to be tied down to new deals such as Iain Henderson and Tadhg Furlong.

Furlong is a phenomenal player and would court huge deals from France, where the tighthead prop enjoys royal status.

We often don't truly appreciate what we have until we have a real risk of losing it.

In a roundabout way, if Munster can keep hold of Peter and CJ it could turn out to be the good-news story the province's fans have been craving. Besides, the alternative doesn't bear thinking about.

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