Saturday 24 February 2018

O'Leary's French direction

Top 14 move could prove springboard for Reds' out-of-favour scrum-half to get his career back into international spotlight

Munster's Tomas O'Leary
Munster's Tomas O'Leary

Hugh Farrelly

TOMAS O'LEARY is not the first Ireland international to be linked with a move to France.

Over the last few seasons, Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton have all been courted by Top 14 clubs, while Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll was paraded by Biarritz president Marcel Martin in front of expectant home supporters back in 2005.

Being the subject of concerted, lucrative courtship is no bad thing when it comes to players negotiating deals to remain in Ireland but, in O'Leary's case, the logic behind such a move is meatier than merely seeking a contract bargaining tool.

The main motivation for O'Leary would be the fact he is no longer first-choice at Munster and has fallen out of Ireland's top three, behind Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss and, with Paul Marshall making waves in Ulster, game-time is a priority.

All the indications point to Murray (a player who has made the most of his rapid elevation with a series of accomplished displays at the World Cup and on his return) now being regarded as the established first choice with Munster and Ireland.

Having been promoted ahead of long-time incumbent Peter Stringer on Munster's run to the 2008 Heineken Cup title, O'Leary is now experiencing the flip-side of that situation with a gut-wrenching swoop from being Ireland's go-to No 9, to provincial back-up.

O'Leary made significant contributions as substitute to Munster's seismic opening European victories over the past few weeks and, while persistent injury problems and consequent loss of form contributed directly to his provincial and national demotion this year, he looks to be fit and firing once more.

Nonetheless, with the Heineken Cup the accepted casting ground for the Ireland team, being reduced to bit-part contributions off the bench reduces his capacity to work his way back into the Ireland reckoning.

While the IRFU understandably would prefer to keep all their top players with the provinces, and would be wary of a trickle to France becoming a flow, playing abroad does not ensure non-selection for the national side -- as the World Cup participation of Tommy Bowe (Ospreys) and Geordan Murphy (Leicester) proves.

When there is a 50-50 call in certain positions, the likelihood is that the home-based player will get the nod.

This is the reason why Mick O'Driscoll, Dan Tuohy and Devin Toner have been called up to the Ireland second-row ahead of London Irish stalwart Bob Casey in recent seasons and why Ulster's Chris Henry was favoured over (the similarly styled) Northampton No 8 Roger Wilson for the 2010 summer tour.

France came agonisingly close to winning the World Cup, despite a chaotic campaign and dubious selection policy and their domestic league, in terms of quality and intensity, is the best in Europe.

Nailing down a regular spot with a Top 14 club would carry considerable clout on a player's international resume and, while players may haven been operating in a void back in Donal Spring's time, that is no longer the case, with coverage of French club matches easily available.

O'Leary is the type of scrum-half who could flourish in the Top 14 environment. While France excels at producing wispy, footballing scrum-halves in the Dimitri Yachvili, Morgan Parra, Julien Dupuy mould, the more physical No 9s are highly valued also, and Byron Kelleher has set a Top 14 template which O'Leary, at his best, can readily follow.

Then there is the timing aspect. O'Leary is out of contract at the end of the season, has just turned 28 and has many years left in his career.

A two-season stint in France would allow him ample time to return to Ireland and finish his career on home soil, availing of the tax incentive (40pc back over 10 years) for doing so.

Additionally, the fact that Ireland are at the start of a four-year World Cup cycle would allow enough time to come back and challenge for England 2015, while you would imagine a productive spell in the Top 14 would enhance, rather than reduce, O'Leary's claim for a place in the 2013 Lions squad to tour Australia, regardless of whether he was playing international rugby.

After a superb 2008/'09 season, O'Leary made the Lions squad for South Africa only to be denied by injury and the overall aim should be to get back to that level of performance -- a move to France could be just the act of rejuvenation required.

The nature of his last-minute omission from the World Cup squad was a massive psychological blow but O'Leary's response, including turning out for an All-Ireland League encounter as he battled his way back, has been encouraging.

A pro-active approach is always the best way forward. Mike Ross, Eoin Reddan, Damien Varley and Sean Cronin are all examples of players who took the plunge in search of game-time with productive results.

If the right offer is made, O'Leary going to France would certainly qualify as a proactive move -- and one which could benefit all concerned -- including Ireland coach Declan Kidney.

Ireland's wild geese

Jeremy Davidson - Castres

The Ulster second-row was perfectly suited to the abrasive nature of rugby in the south of France but, just like Brennan, fell out of the Ireland picture as Paul O'Connell came through and established himself. Went on to coach the Castres forwards.

Donal Spring - Bagniers

One of the heroes of Munster's win over the All Blacks in 1978, Spring won seven caps but was never dropped before his switch to Bagniers, where he fronted up superbly, describing his time there as "a learning curve in survival".

Trevor Brennan - Toulouse

A life-changing switch that brought the former Leinster back-row two Heineken Cup medals and a successful reinvention as a second-row. But Brennan did not add to his 13 caps after making the move. Compensation came with becoming a major hit in Toulouse, where he runs a popular Irish bar.

Irish Independent

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