Foreign fields not as promising for Irish rugby professionals
Less money and opportunity on offer as coronavirus impact becomes clearer
Former Leinster player Noel Reid has joined Agen on a two-year deal. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images
Traditionally Irish players have been willing to travel abroad in search of a career in professional rugby when denied options at home but the financial implications imposed by the coronavirus pandemic means that there is both less money and opportunity at present.
Ireland’s representation in the French Top 14 league has shrunk to just six players with Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan at Racing 92, Stuart Olding, who signed a contract extension until 2022 at Brive – former Ulster wing Rory Scholes was released by the club – Noel Reid, who agreed a two-year contract with Agen, where he will link with prop Dave Ryan.
The 21-year-old former CBC Cork pupil Eoghan Barrett has made quite an impression with Pau and is listed as part of the squad for the 2020-2021, season.
There is a small Irish influx into French club rugby’s second tier, the Pro D2, with the 27-year-old Cork-born Canadian international outhalf Shane O’Leary moving to Rouen from Nottingham while Kilkenny native Peter Lydon, joins him at the club. Lydon spent a year at Stade Francais earlier in his career before joining London Scottish and latterly Ealing Trailfinders.
Wexford’s Robin Copeland has signed a three-year contract with Soyaux Angoulême after completing two years at Connacht. The 32-year-old, who won one cap for Ireland against Georgia in a November Test match in 2014, had enjoyed a nomadic rugby career having played with Plymouth and Rotherham and the Cardiff Blues before joining Munster with whom he made 70 appearances over four seasons.
Secondrow John Madigan has left Massy for Beziers, the latter recently linked with a multi-million pound investment from a United Arab Emirates consortium, while fellow Corkman, lock and former Munster player Darren O’Shea joined Vannes earlier in the summer.
The 6’ 9” 27-year-old O’Shea is a product of Crosshaven RFC and despite getting into the Munster academy in 2013 opted to join the Worcester Warriors, where he stayed for two seasons before rejoining his native province in 2016.
While not a first-choice regular, he made 44 appearances for the senior side as well as helping the A team win the British & Irish Cup in 2017. He will replace ex Ireland international Dan Tuohy, who recently retired from rugby, at the Brittany based club.
Denis Coulson has left Carcassonne, young Ulster prop Ben McCrossan departed from Nevers with the single biggest Irish representation at a club in Pro D2, former Munster triumvirate Dave O’Callaghan, Billy Scannell – the youngest brother of Rory and Niall – and James Hart, all of whom are currently listed at Biarritz Olympique players.
In the English Premiership, Exeter Chiefs’ Gareth Steenson, 36, has agreed to postpone his retirement until the end of the current season. A hugely popular and influential figure at Sandy Park he is set to join the club’s coaching staff. Fellow Ulsterman Ian Whitten (33) has signed an unspecified contract extension.
Ian Madigan has swapped the Bristol Bears for Ulster while hooker Bryan Byrne, who joined the English club from Leinster on a short-term contract prior to the lockdown, has agreed terms on a one-year deal. Former Ireland Under-20 scrumhalf Niall Saunders (22) has been forced to retire from the sport after battling bravely against a blood disorder since childhood.
Leicester Tigers have signed current Irish under-20 centre Dan Kelly from Loughborough University and director of rugby Geordan Murphy has agreed a contract extension with outhalf Johnny McPhillips (23), who was part of the James Ryan-led Irish 20s that reached the Junior World Championship final in 2016.
Another underage international Ciarán Booth moves to the Connacht academy from the Sale Sharks, while hooker Niall Annett has negotiated an improved deal with the Worcester Warriors.
In the English Championship, Mark Best, James Newey and Conor Joyce have left Jersey for Doncaster, Under-20 Grand Slam winner Angus Kernohan switches from Ulster to Ealing, Ciarán Parker and Seán O’Connor, once of Munster, will play for the Jersey Reds next season while Irish qualified wing Jack Stapley and Willie Ryan bolster an Irish contingent at Nottingham that is already five strong.
Not all club squads have been filled or finalised in relation to aforementioned leagues so there could be scope for further movement.