Strange how it has all turned out. Some years ago, when volunteer officials were running the IRFU’s player contracts committee, there was frequent disgruntlement from Ireland’s leading players that negotiations often used to push into the Six Nations campaign.
They wanted rid of the amateurs running the professional game and they got their wish with David Nucifora’s appointment as high performance chief in 2014. The irony now, though, is that on the Australian’s watch, the delays in reaching agreements are in some instances are now unprecedented.
Driving hard bargains and securing best value for money has always been at the heart of Nucifora’s brief. However, this season’s protracted negotiations suggest the IRFU are ready to push it to the limit with whoever comes before them at the contract table.
Just look at the nine central contract deals that were up for re-negotiation this season. While extensions were quickly reached with Conor Murray (2022), Robbie Henshaw (2022), Keith Earls (2021) and Johnny Sexton (2021), stars with plenty of glitter left in them, the fortunes of the other five big names have been curiously mixed to say the least.
It was RugbyPass who revealed in early February that Sean O’Brien was quitting for London Irish after failing to agree terms with Nucifora. The pay cut they were offering was far to much for him to accept.
The eight players left on Irish Rugby's 'central contract' hit list and how the IRFU plan to pay for them https://t.co/Pyx9ncjd5S
— liam heagney (@heagneyl) October 21, 2018
Then came the Jack McGrath situation, RugbyPass confirming in the run-up to the Leinster-Ulster European quarter-final that he will be trading Dublin for Belfast from next season. That was a very strange twist as IRFU centrally contracted players never usually switch provinces.
Next, Rory Best was won around to the decision in April that it would be best for him to retire after this year’s World Cup, a development that left two remaining big situations to be resolved.
It was Tuesday when the IRFU finally confirmed that they are keeping Cian Healy on their books until 2021, but their hardball tactics aren’t yet complete as Rob Kearney’s future is still in limbo amid speculation he will be forced to leave for a Top 14 club post-World Cup.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 22, 2019
With Joe Schmidt moving on from the national team after Japan, it appears the status of a player who featured in just four of Ireland’s nine matches this season is in a serious state of flux that is also reflected at Leinster where there have been big games he has not been selected to start.
It was O’Brien who let slip in a social media message some weeks ago that France was Kearney’s likely destination and the veteran’s inability to win the IRFU around to what he believes is his market value was further highlighted by his name being missing from Leinster’s lengthy midweek list of contract renewals for next season.
Leinster confirm 21 contracts… but no update issued on Rob Kearney's situation https://t.co/Cjhyyk9ITL
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 21, 2019
Kearney is believed to be dissatisfied with what is on the table in Ireland and the ongoing delay in striking terms demonstrates the power that Nuicfora is wielding with the IRFU purse. Their approach increasingly with the veterans is to pitch an initial offer low, stir things up and see what happens.
Its consequence is that a deal is still to be struck in late May with a loyal servant of the Irish game. That’s a situation no one believed would be case when the amateur committee men were sidelined all those years ago.
WATCH: The RugbyPass behind the scenes documentary on Leinster’s 2018 PRO14 final win over Scarlets
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