Gordon D’Arcy: IRFU has to pay Peter O’Mahony what he wants

From my own contract negotiations I know the IRFU could be playing a very dangerous game

Peter O’Mahony is a cultural driver, the rightful heir to follow Gaillimh, Axel and O’Connell. The IRFU needs to find the figure that makes Pete feel valued. Photograph:  Billy Stickland/Inpho

Peter O’Mahony is a cultural driver, the rightful heir to follow Gaillimh, Axel and O’Connell. The IRFU needs to find the figure that makes Pete feel valued. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

There are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know about the IRFU. Like the true state of their finances.

They have consistently said they pay the leading 60 or so Irish players close to market value. I’d like to see actual evidence.

The IRFU’s wealth is an unknown. Rarely do my head and heart sing in unison but both are saying they have more than enough to keep the players they need.

We will know a little more after the January 1st deadline on Peter O’Mahony’s contract talks.

To be fair, the union are victims of the national team’s success but that should not be an excuse to create scenarios where players feel undervalued and, nor is it a reason to allow contract talks continue into key moments of their season. This cannot be good for morale.

Transparency has never been high on the IRFU’s agenda.

The movement of players between provinces is an achievement in itself. Jordi Murphy’s imminent switch from Dublin to Belfast appears to show improved fluidity, perhaps even a change in attitude. Jordi travelling north is only a positive big picture move if it’s reciprocal. Where are Ulster in good health? Can Connacht benefit?

I can see how Leo Cullen is unhappy with this situation, especially when Leinster lose Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Seánie O’Brien, Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock to Ireland camp next season.

The unknown policy seems to be to keep as many players as possible as cheaply as possible

The idea that Leinster stocks are overflowing with quality is an exaggeration. They are doing a fine job of bringing talent through but this is a standard requirement for every province!

Take hooker. They have a South African, a Limerick man and James Tracy was previously a prop (Granted, Bryan Byrne is home grown). The theory that Leinster castaways will plug holes in other provinces is not sustainable. Certainly not as a one-way system. Nor is the current contractual process.

The unknown policy seems to be to keep as many players as possible as cheaply as possible.

Plummeting contract

I do know a little about this. I signed six IRFU contracts lasting 17 years. A two-year deal aged 18, another two-year at 20, a three-year at 24 followed by one at the zenith of my earning power, age 27, before a plummeting spectacularly contract age 30. The sixth deal, age 33, was another significant drop, a take it or leave it offer.

You climb up the stairs only to come screaming down the elevator shaft.

Fintan Drury always did a good job for me. The first real negotiation wasn’t until 2004, the third contract, but I’d been named player of the Six Nations so the process ran smoothly. Same three years later.

It’s a dance that must be done; the player trying to squeeze every penny from the IRFU who have a budgeted threshold they will not pass.

My fifth contract was tough to swallow. I took a hefty pay cut in 2010/11 despite being at the peak of my powers, despite being the starting Ireland number 12 heading into a World Cup season.

Is David Nucifora a proxy for the IRFU committee or does he have plenipotentiary powers? Photograph: Billy Stickland
Is David Nucifora a proxy for the IRFU committee or does he have plenipotentiary powers? Photograph: Billy Stickland

The IRFU played their hand perfectly, I was happy to stay and they accurately valued a depreciating asset. The reason I was given was old age. I was about to turn 31. Form was clearly not a consideration. 

The landscape has evolved significantly since I last scribbled Gordon D’Arcy on the bottom line but I’m not entirely convinced the decision makers have.

The power brokers who handed over control of contract negotiations to David Nucifora remain in situ. The same CEO and, largely, the same committee of 22 men and, more recently, one woman.

Is Nucifora a proxy for the committee or does he have plenipotentiary powers? Unknown.

If he has the ability to say yay or nay, why are deals still stalling?

I’m led to believe the disparity in figures sought by players and offered by the IRFU is six figures.

The process under Nucifora does seem more streamlined, with less high profile negotiations spilling into the Six Nations. That used to be a key ploy, and it will be used again by both sides. Stand firm over the offer on the table and let the player risk injury straining every sinew in his body, spilling blood and rattling his brain in the green jersey. Then refuse to budge on the original offer as he spins into another all-consuming Heineken Cup week.

All the things that make a player perform, make for a happy existence, can be used against him

A player rarely if ever plays poorly because of stalled contract talks – you lift your game to prove your value. It’s a good way to align your thoughts on the job at hand. An “I’ll-show-them” mentality pervades.

Contracts are not just about the form of the player, a good negotiator takes all the factors into consideration. Especially when he gets married and kids arrive, especially when they start school. All the things that make a player perform, make for a happy existence, can be used against him.

So you sign, even though you know you are worth substantially more.

That’s changing. 

Foreign interests

Only once did I dance the jig. I threatened to leave with a offer from France but the IRFU decided I wasn’t worth more money to keep. The offer from abroad was not enough to turn my head as I always wanted to play my entire career at Leinster.

That was eight years ago. The offers have increased. 

That’s why Iain Henderson recently mentioned foreign interest exists to lure him away from Ulster. The Lions tour made Henderson a blue chip commodity.

They know the precise details of your injury jacket. They know you love playing for your country, they know that’s a drug more enticing than doubling your wages (not tripling though).

The refusal of Joe Schmidt to select Simon Zebo in November was a clear warning to others that the IRFU will strip the green jersey off your back if you leave. Count your caps, son, ‘cos that’s the lot of them.

It has created a fascinating market for the others. Cue the media stories engineered more often than not by the agent. As this is anything but a transparent process who could blame them. The overriding goal is to get the player paid close to what he is worth.

Peter O’Mahony’s true value should be placed above all of this. The market is less relevant when it comes to this rare breed of Munster canine.

Paul O’Connell embodied Munster for a very long time. He was the socket the Red Army plugged into on those famous Thomond Park nights. He looked around before retiring and feared for the place. Paulie wondered if another leader would be able to shoulder the ever increasing load.

CJ Stander is a fully fledged, fully deserved Ireland international but I’d be amazed if he’s not back living in South Africa, his true home, within 10 years. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
CJ Stander is a fully fledged, fully deserved Ireland international but I’d be amazed if he’s not back living in South Africa, his true home, within 10 years. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Then Pete walked through the door, calmly took the captaincy off him, before starting a row with the biggest man on whatever freakishly sized French/English pack that rolled into Limerick.

When the Leicester Tigers attempt to go through the guts of Munster on Saturday night we all know who will be first to throw his head where studs don’t dare stand.

O’Mahony is a cultural driver, the rightful heir to follow Gaillimh, Axel and O’Connell. The IRFU needs to find the figure that makes Pete feel valued. They need to ignore the year he missed with a knee injury. Focus on his lineout ability, his leadership, his sheer presence through the dark days last season.

He is a generational player.

Irish talent

The CJ Stander situation is not so clear cut. Currently it would take Stander three seasons to earn what he could command in one year in France. He is a fully fledged, fully deserved Ireland international but I’d be amazed if he’s not back living in South Africa, his true home, within 10 years.

That makes him a genuine flight risk. Stander’s durability and consistency of performance should make him one of the top five paid players in the country. Apparently, that is very far from the case.

There are more clubs than ever before seeking Irish talent. The broadcast money is enormous and the billionaire owners tend to get who they want.

The game has changed. As have player attitudes. I thought Johnny Sexton’s departure would lead to a flood but Nucifora and Schmidt travelled to Paris in August 2014 to bring him home after some bad experiences at Racing 92. The dam was mended until Zebo announced his departure. It’s leaking again.

But the major problem for the IRFU is clear: The game has become so attritional that players are forced to find their true value sooner. 

The current generation of players are learning that life after rugby is traumatic at first, slowly you recover, before a brand new career is forced upon us all. For the large majority, the bottom line will never be as lucrative as it is in those sweet spot years of 27 to 30.

The only certainty when rugby ends is uncertainty. A financial buffer is so important as you haven’t even reached the halfway mark in your life.

After that, I had 12 seasons as a professional under my belt and saw myself as ahead of the curve. So I signed and returned to the bubble’s safety.

I didn’t know there was another four seasons in the tank. If I did, and the money was what it appears to be now, I’d have left Ireland simply because of the security it would provide in the next phase of my family’s life.

The only certainty when rugby ends is uncertainty. A financial buffer is so important as you haven’t even reached the halfway mark in your life. The only ex-rugby professionals you see and hear are via the media. They are coaching or they are providing analysis mined from their nitty-gritty experience.

Not many ex-players become lawyers like Shane Horgan and lecture at Trinity College or, like Ronan O’Gara are recruited by the Canterbury Crusaders or grow into a serial entrepreneur like Jamie Heaslip.

There are two contracts, three if lucky, four if blessed, to provide a safety net for yourself in the real world.

Trust me, the game takes plenty from us. If O’Mahony can earn double, almost treble for Stander, in the Premiership and Top 14 what are these men supposed to do? What would you do?

When you hear O’Mahony talk of sorting a deal “one way or the other” before January 1st on the week Leicester come to Limerick there is no reason to doubt he’s telling the truth.

If they have the money, then pay him. It will be the cheapest money ever spent in rebuilding Munster. If either man leaves this summer are we to assume the IRFU don’t have the necessary finances? And if that’s the case, then Irish rugby is facing a problem of unknown, yet epic proportions.

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