Seán O’Brien on the verge of joining Toulon

Jamie Heaslip’s representatives are also believed to be meeting with Toulon representatives this week

Ireland’s Seán O’Brien: Close to signing for Toulon on foot of a visit to the city to check out the club’s facilities last week..

Ireland’s Seán O’Brien: Close to signing for Toulon on foot of a visit to the city to check out the club’s facilities last week..


Seán O’Brien is close to signing for Toulon on foot of a visit to the city to check out the club’s facilities and Stade Felix Mayol stadium last week, with French sources confirming that the Leinster, Irish and Lions’ flanker is set to return there this week, no later than tomorrow if he is not there already.

In tandem with these developments, The Irish Times has learned that the IRFU’s protracted negotiations with his agent Fintan Drury of Platinum One have reached an impasse, whereas the offer from Toulon, even after tax, is considerably more remunerative.

O’Brien, like team-mate Jamie Heaslip, has seemingly expressed a desire to remain with his native province, and the IRFU have apparently worked hard to keep both players within the Leinster set-up with international contracts. Nor, at face value, would a move to Toulon and the demands of the Top 14 appear ideal for O’Brien as a rugby decision given his injury profile and the attritional nature of his game.

He is currently sidelined for at least four or five months after undergoing a shoulder operation. However, this has uncanny echoes of the negotiations which ultimately concluded in Johnny Sexton – who is also represented by Drury – joining Racing Metro.

Toulon benefactor
Whatever the difference between the player and his agent’s own valuation, and that of the IRFU, it would be a huge differential compared to the salary being offered by the likes of Toulon or Racing. As with Racing and their owner Jacky Lorenzetti, the backing of the Toulon benefactor, comic publisher Mourad Boudjellal, pushes them beyond the remit of most other French clubs, even Toulouse and Clermont, and experts in this field suggest that the offer to O’Brien, and possibly Heaslip, would have to be in excess of €500,000.

This would also come under the ambit of what is known in the trade as ‘French net’, which means that much of the tax is paid by the club and leaves the player himself with only 10 to 20 per cent to pay in tax. Thus, even factoring in the sporting tax rebate at the end of a player’s career, their earnings from such a two-year deal would dwarf the rewards in the Irish system.

O’Brien is also understood to have been highly impressed with the facilities, all-round set-up and lifestyle being offered by the reigning Heineken Cup champions on the Côte d’Azur, which is home to a multinational cast of players including a sizeable contingent of English and English-speaking players such as Jonny Wilkinson and Bryan Habana.

Toulon are known to be in the marketplace for back-row re-enforcements in light of the impending departures of Joe van Niekerk and Virgile Bruni at the end of the season.

Heaslip’s representatives are also believed to be meeting with Toulon representatives this week on foot of a meeting between the player and the Toulon coach Bernad Laporte last month, now believed to have taken place in Dublin according to French sources. That said, another French source maintains it would be surprising if Toulon ultimately signed both O’Brien and Heaslip given greater restrictions on foreign players in the Top 14, and also given that both players could be on international duty simultaneously in November and during the Six Nations. Even so, a move to France for Heaslip, who used to be represented by Platinum One before moving to Ikon Talent and Damien O’Donohoe at the end of the 2011/12 season, has always appeared feasible given he is 30, has achieved so much at Leinster and is comparatively more durable.

Protracted battle
At any rate, the IRFU are clearly in a protracted battle to keep both players in the Leinster set-up. Admittedly, the loss of either or both would not preclude them from playing for it Ireland. Yet, following on from the loss of Sexton and Isa Nacewa at the end of last season, it would tear the guts out of the Leinster team that won four European trophies in five seasons given the impending retirements of Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen.

Barring a late twist, O’Brien is seemingly now on the verge of joining Toulon.

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