Sport Rugby

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Rachel Wyse: No one could blame our stars for jumping ship to France

Irish rugby facing 'harsh' economic lessons if O'Brien and Heaslip depart

Sean O'Brien has committed his future to the IRFU, but what of the other out of contract players?
Sean O'Brien has committed his future to the IRFU, but what of the other out of contract players?

Saturday, December 7, 2013 and Jonathan Sexton leaves the field in Nantes with his head bowed and his body sore. Racing Metro have just been torn to shreds by Conor O'Shea's Harlequins in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup and Sexton doesn't look pleased.

How could he be? For such a supreme professional, it had been a dismal afternoon, his side conceding 32 points and four tries, scoring just eight in reply. A heavy defeat to an Aviva Premiership side on your 'home' turf is about as far removed from Sexton's idea of a good day as one could imagine.

His glum, frustrated expression tells a thousand words. I picture him in the home dressing-room after the final whistle, listening to criticism from angry coaches and looking around at team-mates for a reaction.

The feelings of embarrassment and shame in a performance must be foreign to him.

And later that evening, as he watches his friends and former colleagues at Leinster destroy Northampton at Franklin's Gardens, does he look around at the comfortable surroundings of his new home in Paris and think: is this really worth it?

Professional sport does not allow for sentiment or loyalty. There is no space for nostalgia. This is business and money rules. Sport has become a means to inflate profit margins. Rugby is slowly beginning to catch on to the realities of professional sport.

COMMODITIES

The game has become a business and the players are commodities to be traded and sold.

The cocoon that has kept Ireland's brightest and best on home shores for the last 15 years is slowly beginning to unravel. Sexton was the first star name to poke his head above the parapet and he will not be the last.

His move from Leinster to Racing Metro last summer knocked down the barrier around Irish talent to such an extent that most are now seen as attainable.

One cannot blame foreign poachers for sniffing around the Irish provinces, just as we cannot blame players for being tempted away from the nest.

As Eoin O'Malley will attest, the length of any playing career is ultimately at the mercy of the gods. In a sport where physical contact and the rate of attrition is growing by the kilo, nobody can predict what lies around the next ruck.

One bad hit at the wrong time and the dream could end in an instant. Sean O'Brien knows this all too well. The battering ram of the Ireland team is one of the IRFU's most prized assets, and he is also one of the most sought-after.

As the domestic game in France moves further and further away from the trickery and flair for which it was once renowned and more towards physicality and muscle, a player like O'Brien finds himself in serious demand.

It's understandable if his salary expectations have risen with his reputation. But with each tackle and carry into carnage, O'Brien's body depreciates a little bit more.

His latest shoulder injury will see him sidelined for most of the forthcoming Six Nations campaign, but such blows are inevitable for a player for whom physical confrontation is par for the course.

And when Toulon, armed with a considerable bank balance, come calling, why shouldn't he listen to their offer?

In an ideal world, O'Brien would pen a new contract with the IRFU and stay in the bosom of his adoring fans. But professional sport and idealism rarely go hand in hand. O'Brien will turn 27 next month. He may have another five or six years at the top level. Imagine if we all only had five or six years' earning potential remaining in our current jobs?

Very quickly thoughts would turn to maximising returns. If he has an opportunity to double his salary playing in France, wouldn't O'Brien be mad not to take it?

Besides an increased salary, there are other factors to consider.

Most of the top stars at Leinster have already achieved a considerable amount of success with their province. O'Brien has won three Heineken Cups, a Pro12 title and an Amlin Cup.

In the blue of Leinster he has known success in every competition and he may well fancy the challenge of achieving silverware with another team.

A move abroad would bring its own challenges --as Sexton is now finding out -- but it would also provide a whole new life experience.

Who is to say that O'Brien wouldn't relish the prospect of living away from Ireland and experiencing a different culture for a few years?

One only has to look at how Jonny Wilkinson has thrived at Toulon to get an idea of what life in the south of France could be like for the 'Tullow Tank'.

O'Brien is not the only player considering a move. Jamie Heaslip is also reportedly being chased by clubs in France and there are strong indications that he could leave Leinster when his contract expires in the summer.

Closer to home, London Irish have a wealthy new owner and rumours suggest he is intent on recruiting some big Irish names to strengthen his squad. The threat of more top Irish players leaving the provinces over the next few years is now very real.

Frustration among Irish rugby fans is easy to understand and the IRFU appears to be playing a dangerous game.

SHOWCASE

How long will the Leinster branch be able to sustain current crowd numbers at the RDS without its top stars to showcase?

Will the same amount of fans flock to Thomond Park to see second-string players week in week out in the Pro12?

The bean counters in head office seem to have concluded that it is the love of the game -- and not the players on show -- that is driving huge numbers of fans through the gates each week.

If that is the case, an opportunity to test their theory may not be very far away.

Every sport is a product. Lose the top players and the product will inevitably suffer. The IRFU's strategy on the current crop of contract negotiations is difficult to fathom.

Ultimately, whatever O'Brien decides to do, his final decision will be based on what is best for him.

I am quite sure that his agent Fintan Drury (who also works with Sexton and Heaslip) has already outlined the financial benefits of a move to France, and maybe the 'Tullow Tank' is quite happy to leave the farm in Carlow behind for a few years.

Few could blame him should he decide to play his rugby elsewhere. While the money on offer isn't comparable, rugby is now a business just like soccer and basketball and every other professional sport.

I fear some harsh economic lessons lie in store for the Irish game.

Irish Independent

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