Irish Rugby
The dangers of an Irish exodus
Murray Kinsella
October 15, 2013
Sean O'Brien - now complete with Ireland, Leinster and Lions caps © Getty Images

Sean O'Brien's muscular performance for Leinster was one of the highlights of the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup, with the 26-year-old's aggression, power and breakdown dominance helping his province to an excellent 19-9 win against the Ospreys.

However, we may be watching O'Brien stand out in a lighter shade of blue from next season, with mutterings of a move to Racing Métro persisting. In the same game, Jamie Heaslip was back to his best form, leading Leinster by example and showing all the intelligence that has made him such a success. The whispers of his possible departure for Clermont Auvergne remain audible.

These are the growing realities of professional rugby. Alongside the inevitable shift in power from national unions to the clubs, soccer-style rumours and high-profile player transfers are likely to become more prevalent as the game continues to adapt to a professional status that is still less than 20 years old. For the Irish provinces, the danger of losing their highest quality players is very real.

While there have been Irishmen who have packed their bags and headed to the French leagues before, Jonny Sexton's switch to Racing during the summer has set a marker and also given Irish players an increased bargaining chip when it comes to negotiation time. No one wanted to be the first one out the door, but the British & Irish Lions out-half's example will encourage others to follow suit. The IRFU will be desperate not to let that happen.

Irish players are becoming more aware of their true value in terms of remuneration and wages deservedly continue to grow. The physical nature of our game means any career involves huge risks, none more so than for explosive guys like O'Brien and hard workers like Heaslip. Both players could certainly earn more money than he does in Ireland if he decides to move to France, and no one should begrudge them that opportunity.

"The French clubs are not going to start pillaging Ireland for 10 players each season, but it is almost certain that there will be more instances like Sexton's"

Underlining this entire issue is the IRFU's current financial worries. A €26 million shortfall in projected earnings announced in July means times are tight for the governing body, and indeed it could be suggested that they would be happy of offload a couple more of their highest earners to France. That is, of course, a cynical suggestion and we must presume that the IRFU are focused on keeping their best players in the country.

We are not talking of a mass exodus here. Irish rugby has more than enough attractive features, such as the IRFU's player management programme, to ensure that everyone is not going to depart in force. Rather, we are looking at the very peak of the playing scale in Ireland, our best three or four players, and the men who the Top 14 clubs truly covet.

Realistically, there is very little the IRFU can do in a financial sense if one of their high-profile players decides to entertain offers from France. There is simply not enough money in Irish rugby to compete with the likes of Clermont, Racing, Montpellier and Toulon. O'Brien's agent Fintan Drury revealed to The Sunday Times that he has had no contact from the IRFU concerning the back row's contract and that he doesn't expect those negotiations to begin until after the November internationals.

Meanwhile, the French clubs have already begun planning for next season in earnest, and waters have almost certainly been tested with Drury regarding O'Brien's interest. The IRFU were slow to act with regards to Sexton, and it appears the same is happening in this instance.

Cardiff Blues' Sam Warburton and Leinster's Jamie Heaslip share a joke, Leinster v Cardiff Blues, RaboDirect PRO12, RDS, Dublin, September 27, 2013
'See you in France next year, mate...?' © PA Photos

If they are serious about retaining the services of their best players, then perhaps hiring someone like Drury, with a strong understanding of the market, would be a positive move. The IRFU has never encountered scenarios like this, and it is hard to imagine that their experience is anything other than limited.

Drury has also stated his firm belief that other players will follow Sexton's example: "The reality is players will come and go and this will be an increasing phenomenon. I don't believe for a minute there will be a mass exodus but I do think that Jonny going will mean more players will go." Clearly, it is financially beneficial for his clients that the IRFU believes that sentiment, but Irish rugby's governing body would be displaying arrogance if it refuted the notion.

O'Brien and Heaslip's decisions over moves to France will need to take into account the increased demands that will be placed on them physically. Whatever about the arguable rise in standard from the PRO12 to the Top 14, the Ireland internationals will simply have to play more games. Sexton provides the evidence; last season the out-half started 10 league matches for Leinster, whereas he has already started nine in the Top 14 for Racing.

What these moves may all come down to is the individual player's decision on whether or not the increased wages are worth the greater physical demands. While experiencing a new culture and language are attractive features of a move, that is not the number one issue. The IRFU certainly need to become more proactive and quick acting in the negotiation process but in simple terms, it cannot compete financially.

The French clubs are not going to start pillaging Ireland for 10 players each season, but it is almost certain that there will be more instances like Sexton's. The players themselves have the power in the decision-making process and must weigh up the pros and cons of a prospective transfer. For the IRFU, acting early and reminding its marquee players of the benefits of staying at home look to be the key.

Post-script: Having read the article above, the IRFU felt moved to comment. Irish rugby's governing body has revealed that they have indeed begun negotiations with Sean O'Brien regarding a new contract. The first meeting took place on the June 5, with Leinster representatives also present. A second meeting was held on the October 1, with a provisional agreement for a third at the end of October also in place. The IRFU say they are awaiting Fintan Drury's response in relation to that third meeting.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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