Taking Care of Bid’ness

Contract negotiations are a tricky thing at the best of times, and in a sense, it’s a thankless task for which you can only be criticised.  Throw contracts out like confetti and you’ll be accused of being wasteful (‘Why was Denis Leamy given a two year contract when he was clearly a crock?’).  Play hardball and you’ll be accused of not taking the players for granted (‘Come on, it’s Sean O’Brien, just pay the man’).

At this juncture it looks like the IRFU have more or less taken care of bid’ness, for this sseason anyway.  With Jamie Heaslip, Paul O’Connell and Keith Earls recently signing on the line that is dotted, pretty much all the red-flagged contract re-signings have been locked down*.  Marty Moore, Sean O’Brien and Conor Murray were among the others that had recently signed on.  It’s a great bit of business in what looked a particularly daunting assignment not that long ago.

This year always looked trickier than those in the recent past.  Two issues loomed especially large on proceedings: the uncertainty (still ongoing) over European rugby’s future and the possible emboldening of the French club owners following Racing’s successful recruitment of Johnny Sexton last year.  In truth, the IRFU must have done pretty well to convince the contracted players that they would have some actual rugby to play next season, because any sort of clarity seems miles off.  In France, they’ll always be assured that no matter what else, the Top 14 will remain a long, competitive grind.  And certainly, given that sheer number of stories circulating in the media, it appears that the French clubs believed they could lure one or two more Irish over to their league.

We all remember Brian O’Driscoll being linked with Biarritz, and the Basque club was seen as an exotic location where only our very best would be considered.  But this season just about every Irish player was linked in some way to some French club.  If you weren’t going on a fact-finding mission to some Top 14 training ground to check out the envy-inspiring facilities (‘We don’t even have to play three games a season in a run down heap of a ground for contractual reasons?!  I’m in’) you were pretty much alone.  Sean O’Brien to Clermont or Toulon, Donnacha Ryan to Perpignan, Jamie Healsip to Toulon, Conor Murray to Racing; they were all at it.

Even Marty Moore, having barely started a senior game of note, was apparently being lured to la sud de France by the megabucks.  Presumably the agents who fed the stories to a media who gleefully lapped it up can consider their mission to be accomplished.  Whatever about the lure of the lifestyle and money in France, but when Keith Earls was linked with Reading Samoa it looked a media story too far.  Why any player highly regarded at his team, where he gets to play Heineken Cup rugby on the doorstep of where he grew up, would give that up to scratch around the lower reaches of the Boshiership is anyone’s guess.

One thing that perhaps worked out in the IRFU’s favour has been the sheer weight of the workload Sexton has been under, which has been widely broadcast.  But at the end of the day, the players want to play for the teams to which they are so attached.  The IRFU hopefully recognise that the pull if playing for one’s native province still has a huge pull for the players.

*Not Tom Court obviously – his face just doesn’t fit

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35 Comments

  1. curates_egg

     /  January 27, 2014

    Interesting and topical piece with the Kearneys’ (and Donnchadh Ryan’s) agent McHugh in The Score at the weekend: http://www.thescore.ie/david-mchugh-line-up-kearney-1282442-Jan2014/
    Paints him in a good light…but that was surely the intention.
    Fintan Drury on the other hand…

  2. Munsthor Legind

     /  January 27, 2014

    Strange that IRFU broke the bank with a three year deal for a 30yr old Heaslip and wouldnt budge on Sexto’s demands?

    • Yer Man

       /  January 27, 2014

      A lesson learned?

      • WhisperingDeath

         /  January 27, 2014

        Who said they broke the bank? Image of france has been tarnished by Sexton experience I suspect

        • Yossarian

           /  January 27, 2014

          I think with Johnny he got the offer that would have had him stay but just too late. His pride forced him to go at that point. Heaslip/SOB played the game, didn’t get insulted or impatient and got an offer that was acceptable to stay.

    • I think that’s called learning from your mistakes, Munsthor.

      BTW Whiff – I presume “a run down heap of a ground” refers to Musgrave, but The Sportsground and 3 sides of the RDS ain’t a whole heap better. Come to think of it, I doubt the “Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir” was a key selling point for Sexton.
      Nu Ravenhill and the Debt Star really are the exception rather than the rule Europe-wide when it comes to the Oval ball game.

      • Debt Star, that’s fantastic. Yes, we were referring to Musgrave, and you’re right, none of the grounds you mention are particularly aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps that doesn’t matter so much as long as the team feel it’s their home? For Munster it always looks like a bit of a wrench to play in Musgrave and they’d be happier back in Thomond.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  January 27, 2014

        Racing have a brand new stadium opening, so i’d say that sold Sexton rather than the sports track stadium they play in now.

        • That stadium has been repeatedly delayed by funding and planning issues and indeed hasn’t even broken ground yet. Best possible finish date at the moment is end 2016, so I suspect Jonny will have long returned to Leinster (or Munster or Connacht, who knows) by the time Racing are in their new home.

        • osheaf01

           /  January 27, 2014

          Sexton must also have been encouraged by whupping the Best Team in Europe 25-5 over the weekend, no?

          • Leinsterlion

             /  January 27, 2014

            LOL, shorn of their internationals, with an awful away record, not really surprised tbh, still in with a shout of winning everything though. Compare that to Racing, a team full of big name players who, are eh, “big names” thats about it, they’ll have to bin half their squad before they win anything. They are the Toulon of two three years ago.

  3. I wonder, if Sexton and Racing’s form picks up to the level it was at this weekend, might more be tempted next year? I assumed that his initial struggles were part of the reason people weren’t going, but I think Racing will eventually settle somewhere near the level their teamsheet suggests, and if so that could be another factor in France’s favour. Brilliant Irish players said no this season though.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  January 27, 2014

      I’d be highly skeptical of Racing matching the names on their teamsheet, some of them, Roberts(De Wet Barry MKII?) and Lydiate have never really done it at club level, I think they need a lot more to match the top teams in the top 14, never mind the HC. they remind me of Northampton with Carlos Spencer, world class ten and not much else. I recall Jackman talking about them trying to get out of the contracts with some of the players they signed. I envisage a mass clearout during the summer.

      • I know what you mean, but the thing is it often takes these ‘bought’ teams a little while before they click. I’m thinking of examples from other sports, like the Miami Heat of recent vintage (I’m a basketball fan too). They took a year where they were below the calibre expected, and then they clicked into gear and haven’t stopped since. Toulon sort of the same situation. Obviously the Miami example is another sport and it might be completely different with Racing, but I’m just saying I wouldn’t rule it out completely.

  4. Munsthor Legind

     /  January 27, 2014

    I think everyone seems to be missing the point here..surely the IRFU’s leverage in negotaitions was strengthened by the tarnished image of French rugby, not weakened. The reality is that none of the players fancied the moves (which I dont blame them for)..
    Anyway, would consider this a massive result for the players and agents, not the IRFU..IRFU now paying way over the odds for a player who’s best days are well behind him..
    As for breaking the bank..500k a year deal surely makes Heaslip top paid player in Ireland?

    • There will be loads of rumours over who is paid what, but the reality is you’ll never know. No doubt the likes of Conor Murray and Sean O’Brien picked up a pay rise, whch their profile merits. The IRFU has tied down its best players who were out of contract at the end of the season. They can be pleased with a good result.

  5. Seems Jamie and Seanie turned town huge money to stay at home. Fair play to them. In Ireland we’re all cock-a-hoop about our players staying with their provinces and preventing these from being reduced to feeder clubs for the English and French leagues. The contrast with Wales is somewhat disheartening though and doesn’t augur well for the Rabo / Celtic League. See: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-news/simon-thomas-flak-wales-captain-6595386

    • Some of the commentary has been bizarre – see here. What would Tipuric think? How about “How do I get me one of those central contracts?” – hardly crying in a corner, plotting an exit to Racing Metro. More agendas!

      • zdm

         /  January 27, 2014

        The WRFU have belatedly realised the value of the central contract in controlling the regions. If they had gone for the IRFU model instead of gearing up a structure to jump ship to the English Premiership, they wouldn’t be in the shit-storm they currently are.

        How different a conversation would the board of the Cardiff Blues be having with the WRFU if the union owned the contracts of Halfpenny, Davies, Warburton et al?

  6. p.s Mucho respect to AWJ and Warbs for their loyalty to Welsh rugby. As for 0.5p leaving for Toulon to further his “personal development” [sic], gimme a break, in ainm Dé!!!!!!! Here’s hoping Leinster stick it to Toulon big time, when both teams meet in April. Who knows, the speed we’re getting our players out of injury and back on the pitch e.g. Church and Strauss – maybe even SO’B might be back!

    • Seriously? Halfpenny is one of the best players in the Northern Hemisphere playing for a consistently underperforming club within an imploding structure. If he wants to pursue better wages and conditions as well as trophies at club level, what’s the problem?

      AWJ and Sam the Eagle made their choices with their own best interests at heart. Just because Halfpenny might have different motivations doesn’t mean he’s wrong. This has been said repeatedly but players have short careers and god willing, long lives. I begrudge no one for making their own decisions to make the best of their lot, even if it means leaving their country. This attitude that players who leave their native land to pursue other opportunities are somehow inferior as people has to stop.

      • zdm

         /  January 27, 2014

        I wholeheartedly agree Kate, well said.
        If the local lad from the village qualified as a criminal lawyer but could only get a job as a solicitors assistant, none would begrudge him moving to New York or London in pursuit of money and happiness but when it comes to sport, you’re expected to play the starving nationalist or are treated as a traitor. (that said, it took me a while to warm to Bowe and Wilson returning to Ulster after leaving during the Dark Ages)

        • I think a lot of it has to do with “good face” that WOC mentioned a while ago. I know Heaslip has done very well out of his new deal but gets scads more abuse than SOB, despite the similarities in how their deals were worked out i.e. in the full glare of the media with all the requisite ups and downs such shenanigans now seem to require. People seem to take against certain players, assume they know something about them as people and go to town on them. I find it odd, and a little sad, especially in this country who the rugby community is so small.

          • I’d fully agree with that. My thinking was that, if Heaslip had gone to France and O’Brien had stayed, the narrative would have been “Jamie’s a money-chasing traitor who doesn’t care about anyone else, but Sean’s a top lad and could never leave his farm” whereas if it had been the opposite we’d have heard, “Jamie was just using those French teams to get himself the best, most overpaid deal possible; I’m surprised that Sean’s gone, but it’s understandable given the way things are up in the air – it must have taken a lot to leave the farm behind”. Instead they both did the same thing, which has reduced the potential grumbling somewhat.

            Fully, fully with you on the bemusement about the personal nature of some fan comments.

            However, good article this may be, but it’s hard to get excited about anything rugby-wise beyond this weekend’s three games. We’re going to lose, I know this because I’ve a ticket and my presence in the stands is roughly the same as BOD’s presence in the stands (ie. not on the pitch) over the past decade or so: results go bad.

      • Well said Kate and Larry, incisive comments.

        • Unquestionly, Kate, Larry M and ZDM make pertinent points. Nevertheless, as supporters of Irish rugby, I don’t think it can leave us cold, if the French and English leagues were to buy up all our best players and reduce teams and our league to permanent inferiority. What Toulon et al are trying to do, is what the likes of Man City/U in the Premiership and Bayern in the Bundesliga do. They don’t just buy up the other clubs’ best players, in order to be able to field the best possible team themselves, but rather more importantly to prevent these players playing against them, thereby reducing the level of competition considerably. I would hate it, were such an approach to succeed in European rugby. I want everyone to have a chance – even our bosh-friends i Sassenach. That’s why I hope the Welsh succeed in holding on to their players and am chuffed we have been able to hold on to our big guns this year and keep our own provinces competitive at the highest levels.

          • That’s a fair point but your previous comment was definitely throwing serious shade at the players rather than the shambolic state of Welsh rugby or indeed wider issues of control & cash that are at the heart of this crazy European whirligig of fun we’ve all been on.

            I never said it left me cold, it’s obviously a good thing when good players stay in the country. It seems one of the strongest things we have to offer is the player management and a more holistic attitude to player’s careers and life. It would be my preference for players to stay. It would be my preference that my mates don’t emigrate either but I don’t get to make those decisions.

            The best thing we can do in either situation is to create an environment conducive to staying which the IRFU appear to have done and the Irish government have not. In rugby terms we’ve given ourselves an excellent chance at player retention whereas the Welsh have not. But if a player wants to earn more cash, win more trophies, take on a new challenge or even just to boldly go, much like my mates, even though I’d miss them I’d never begrudge someone that.

  7. zdm

     /  January 27, 2014

    With regard to the Top 14, I don’t think the lure of the league applies beyond French players – the “spirit of the bell tower” is all well and good if you were born under that bell tower but if your bell tower is in Meath or Limerick, I can’t imagine that there is much more magic in, say, Bayonne vs. Biaritz in the Top 14 over Ulster vs. Leinster in the Pro12 for an outsider.

    With that said, it comes down to simple mathematics – on the face of it, the French megabucks seem to trump the IRFU shekel counters hands down. BUT as Tommy Bowe will tell you, thars gold in them thar hills and it’s much easier to sell sandwiches and shoes if you’re the local hero than if you are another Irish rugby player in France – if Sean O’Brien moved to the Basque region, how many non-rugby fans would recognise him? If he stays put in Tullow, what are his chances of getting to the shop for milk without being asked for a photo and an autograph? I’d say someone reminded Messers O’Brein, Heaslip and Murray of the greater value in sponsorship than in contracts for a pro-athlete.

    • Unfortunately the mathematics break down when you consider that rugby in France is a far bigger deal than in Ireland (if you ignore football since there’s no pro league here rugby is still 3rd behind both GAA codes in terms of spectator numbers and market value, and we won’t even mention the TV deal) and more importantly that the Irish sponsorship market is worth damn all as it is equivalent in size to Greater Manchester.

      • zdm

         /  January 27, 2014

        Aye but which Irish rugby players in that environment are a bigger draw than the teams French superstars?
        Sexton, O’Connell and BOD are the ones that immediately spring to mind but compare Murray’s draw to a national add campaign in Ireland to his draw to the same in France. I’d argue that the French company will plump for the household name over Murray.

        Also, while rugby in terms of playing members is smaller than GAA, I can tell you for certain that the locals in Belfast or Dungannon who aren’t hard-core GAA heads wouldn’t recognise the Gooch if he punched them in the nose while I’d be pretty sure that the local GAA fan in Limerick will have some notion of who Jamie Heaslip or Rory Best are. I could be wrong on that but I have an unshakeable notion that the media exposure of rugby players is disproportionately high due to them being effectively the only professional sportsmen operating in Ireland (and thus their relative ability to corner the national advertising market is also disproportionately high).

        • Doesn’t matter how Big A Deal the Irish Rugby player is here, the market is tiny, and fragmented. The only player to do well out of endorsements over a long period of time is BOD, and even he’s reduced to Credit Union ads now. Cian Healy has a Berroca ad with the production values of a fertiliser ad shown once yearly during the hurling All Ireland. The Ulster players have zero advertising worth outside Greater Belfast given the press coverage or lack thereof down south (as covered in the comments in a previous Whiff post), and some players e.g. Heaslip are advertising poison due to the Leinster fans/Munster fans mine-is-bigger-than-yours-aton. There isn’t a snowball’s that the sponsorship bucks could make up for the difference in wages, and that becomes even less likely as we move down from the elite players to the sometimes/wannabe internationals who have no national profile.

        • I think this year it’s not so much the lure of the spirit of the bell-tower as the lure of guaranteed weekly competitive rugby, given the doubts over the future of the Heineken Cup and even the Pro12.

          You’re right in that any increases in salaries have to be offset against any potential loss in marketing revenues, (would Ian Madigan’s face be on a box of eggs in France?) but it’s hard to know how all those things are tied up. I expect they can earn more money in France net of any such issues, but the spirit of the ‘Bear-tower’ (in the case of Jamie Healsip) still counts for something.

    • Patrick O'Riordan

       /  January 28, 2014

      However I was shocked to see a UK TV advert featuring Sebastian Chebal over the weekend. I can’t even remember what the product was, such was the horrifying experience.

  8. Len

     /  January 28, 2014

    Lads good points as always. On the whole provincial outrage it’s interesting to see a bit of a shift on both the Indo and score where such comments are now met with three comments telling the outraged person to shut up. I think the sensible rugby fans are finally speaking up. On Zebo I can see reasons for and against ie ability v lack of game time. I was surprised at McF given lack of game time but then I remembered his injury was a hand injury (I think) which would have less impact on his general fitness than say a leg injury like Zebo. Re DKs lack of attacking edge of late I think this is linked to Jimmy G’s tendency to run laterally leaving his outside backs with less room to operate. I would expect to see more from presentable Dave in the green.

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