Seán O’Brien could sign for Toulon this weekend
Leinster flanker and Heaslip could still be club team-mates next season – in France
Leinster’s Seán O’Brien: his agent Fintan Drury denied that a meeting is scheduled to take place in Toulon this Friday. Photograph: Inpho
Seán O’Brien could sign for Toulon as early as this weekend it has emerged.
The Irish Times has learned that talks with the European champions are at an advanced stage, although last night O’Brien’s agent Fintan Drury denied that a meeting is scheduled to take place in Toulon this Friday.
The versatile Leinster, Ireland and Lions backrow is certain to miss the entire Six Nations, having undergone surgery following a dislocated shoulder sustained against Ulster on December 28th.
The 26-year old has played only eight games this season, following the Lions tour of Australia and a succession of injuries.
But that hasn’t dampened interest from Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal and head coach Bernard Laporte as they strive to replace the retiring Joe van Niekerk and Perpignan-bound flanker Virgil Bruni.
The exodus also means O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip could still be club team-mates next season. Last month the Ireland vice-captain went to France to hear offers from both Toulon and Montpellier.
Springbok flanker Danie Rousouw may also leave the Top 14 club this summer, while their All Black number eight Chris Masoe is out until August with a knee injury.
Seemingly, the IRFU offer for Heaslip to stay in Dublin was less than the three-year deal that previously made him the highest-paid rugby player in Ireland, but there are appearance-based incentives to top up his salary.
The union’s negotiations with Munster pair Paul O’Connell, who needs a two-year deal to make the world cup in England, and Keith Earls are at an equally crucial juncture.
In keeping with Limerick’s dominant theme of contracts and public positions, the future of Munster coach Rob Penney was central to conversation in the Treaty city yesterday as the club prepares for this weekend’s Heineken Cup visit to Gloucester.
It now seems to be a matter of when rather than if Penney will sign a contract to keep him with Munster for next season but the coach was reluctant to dwell on the matter for too long.
After a heartening morning session that included Conor Murray and Simon Zebo resuming “managed training” at UL, Munster are in good shape ahead of the turbulent January fixtures calendar and Penney was not overly concerned about his mailing address for next season.
“That’s part of something you all know, I’m keen to stay and as I said before, the organisation has been top class to deal with,” he said briskly.
“We’re focused on the footie at the moment. Garrett (Fitzgerald)’s really appreciative of the fact that he doesn’t want to have a distraction. I’m not really interested in a distraction at the moment. I’ve got something to focus on and we’ll just leave it at that for now but it is progressing well and all parties are pretty comfortable at the moment.”
Penney is clearly enjoying the challenges of guiding Munster through what might be defined as the post-O’Gara era and if the team’s form and attacking style was uneven last year, the opening months of this season have seen a revival of the club’s priceless habit of winning eminently losable games.
The shrill alarms following the 29-23 defeat to Edinburgh in the opening round of the Heineken Cup and falling into a 20-0 hole in Ravenhill against Ulster last Friday night (before losing 29-19) have, of course, illustrated a vulnerable dimension. But as form setters in the Rabo league and favourites to prolong a miserable period for Gloucester, Munster look in good shape.
“Well, performance-wise, we’ve got a long way to go,” Penney admitted. “We’re getting some outcomes, which is great credit to the lads, because they’re working very hard and deserve to get some reward at the end of the week because they are working well. Whether we’re copping too much criticism or not, I don’t really know. That’s for other people to decide, I just get along and try to do my best for this group and try to get the best out of them.”
Penney’s willingness to give youth its fling has seen several of Munster’s fringe players staking their claim this season. Observing the startling progression of players like scrumhalf Cathal Sheridan and hooker Duncan Casey has, he said, been “a great joy”.
The return of Murray and Zebo greatly enhances Munster’s attacking threat, while hooker Damian Varley, who suffered what Penney feared might prove a “catastrophic injury” to his foot against Ulster has been cleared by specialists and is also in the equation for this weekend, giving the coaching staff further selection issues.
The old days of players nailing down places at Munster are ending and Penney agreed that the retirement of Ronan O’Gara has made the choice of starting number 10 has made for interesting discussion.