Saturday 23 February 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Sean O'Brien cashing in on London Irish deal at tail end of his career is sensible'

London calling: Seán O’Brien’s impending move will not affect his chances of playing at the World Cup. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
London calling: Seán O’Brien’s impending move will not affect his chances of playing at the World Cup. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

As soon as it became clear that the IRFU were not willing to renew Seán O'Brien's centralised contract, Europe's money-laden clubs were put on red alert.

From the union's point of view, the decision makes sense as they did not want to fork out over €400,000 for an exceptionally talented player, but who is injury-prone and turns 32 next week.

The IRFU have seemingly learned their lesson after they handed Jamie Heaslip a fresh deal, which should have run until after the World Cup but for a back injury ending his career.

Heaslip's example shows have quickly the landscape can change for a professional rugby player, especially for someone as abrasive as O'Brien, who has endured some rotten luck with injuries over the years.

So when London Irish came calling with the offer of a three-year contract believed to be worth in the region of €450,000, it was a no-brainer for the Tullow native.

The Irish Independent understands that O'Brien has agreed to join Declan Kidney's side, who are on course for promotion back to the Premiership.

The move could be confirmed as early as next week as there is no sense that this will be a drawn out transfer saga.

Crucially, O'Brien's impending move to England will not affect his chances of playing at the World Cup and as soon as his commitments in Japan are finished in October, he will link up with his new club.

The fact he is able to do so has inevitably reopened the debate surrounding Simon Zebo's non-selection, but there is one main reason why both cases are very different.

O'Brien is currently on an IRFU contract, which runs until after the World Cup. When Zebo decided last year to leave for Racing 92, his deal was with Munster and that only ran until the end of their season.

Joe Schmidt has been very clear in his desire to want his players playing in Ireland, so when Zebo signalled his intention to move to France, the head coach understandably shifted his focus to others who would be around for the World Cup later this year.

Paul O'Connell did something similar four years ago in the lead-up to the last World Cup when he signed for Toulon.

By O'Brien moving to London Irish, the IRFU are not shifting the goalposts and instead are merely sticking to their, admittedly, unwritten rule that is made clear to every Irish player.

Zebo may feel hard done by, and his cryptic Twitter post would suggest that he does, yet he is on a handsome salary in Paris and has said himself that he is loving his new life.

O'Brien's move to London Irish also further strengthens Ireland's bond with the club that has been somewhat lost over recent years.

With Kidney at the helm and Les Kiss alongside him, the majority shareholder Mick Crossan, a Cavan native, has major plans for the club, who currently lead the Championship.

Despite the other internationals (Nick Phipps, Allan Dell and Curtis Rona) that Irish have recently snapped up, O'Brien will undoubtedly be the marquee signing.

Paddy Jackson is expected to follow his former international team-mate from Perpignan, who are destined to be relegated from the Top 14, while Dubliner Brendan Macken, who played with O'Brien at Leinster, is also currently at Irish.

Leinster and Ireland supporters alike will miss O'Brien, who has been an outstanding servant since he burst onto the scene in 2008.

Although it might seem like a body blow for Leinster, they have a plethora of younger back-row options, which isn't to say that they won't miss O'Brien's class and vast experience.

He will leave having cemented himself as arguably the best flanker the country has ever produced and few could deny him the chance to cash in on an eye-watering salary for one last time of what is a short career.

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