Picking Irish team on location over merit is unsustainable
In the era of professional rugby, players realistically have to go and follow the money
Peter O’Mahony: Like Simon Zebo, he has a duty to himself and his family to make the most of a short career at elite level. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Irish rugby has its own little morality play going on. Rather than good and evil it’s a tussle between sentiment and money, although for many it seems to be the same thing. And sure enough the outcome is utterly predictable. In professional sport the money always wins.
That the bad guy gets the girl sticks in a lot of rugby craws. But ultimately they’ll wind up having to swallow it as best they can. You’ve got to be able to afford your sentiment and the game can’t pay enough to keep all its top players here. The End.
Instead what’s interesting about the contract negotiation hand-wringing which surrounds Peter O’Mahony in particular – but a forming queue of other Irish international players too – is its appeal to something more worthy.
Everyone knows the major card the IRFU has to play is the honour of playing for Ireland. So if a player decides to go overseas they forfeit the chance of playing for their country. Unless you’re Johnny Sexton of course.
Sexton’s the exception that encouraged everyone else to believe themselves exceptional too. It’s a move which has left the IRFU’s stand on not picking players for the national team unless they’re based here open to charges of expediency.
Nevertheless the IRFU does have a lot of good on its side. By stressing the primacy of the national team on the back of a provincial structure that has helped catapult the game’s popularity, the stance on playing here in order to play for here actually appeals to sport’s better side.
Crediting the IRFU with altruism is a push. But there is a conscience to the official stance that contains an overall perspective for the good of the game. So they play the hand they have as well as they can.
There are reassurances on player welfare and an acknowledgement that burnout on the back of playing too many matches elsewhere is a real issue. There’s the pull of home, of playing in front of your own and most of all representing the national team.
These factors play to the sentiment at the root of all sport, the things that pull us to it in the first place. They appeal to the heart, to a connection with the local, the honour of representing something bigger than the individual. It’s worthy stuff, a plea to our better selves.
For once, officials mindful of the potential unravelling impact on the provinces, and the game’s overall profile here if a stream of top players going abroad turns into a flood, are essentially good guys fighting a good fight.
The only problem is that it’s futile. And it’s fascinating how long it’s taking Irish rugby to properly face up to that. The sport of choice for much of the business class is finding it hard to acknowledge the financial bottom-line: when it comes to professional Players, it’s the tobacco that counts.
In fact the real intriguing element to all this soul-searching is that anyone can reasonably argue it being any other way.
Professional sportspeople have a responsibility to themselves to do the best they can for themselves. That doesn’t mean ruthlessly devouring first-borns. But it does mean acknowledging sport is first and foremost your job.
Every player knows they are just one bad injury from career oblivion. There’s no glory in patriotism when everyone has moved on to the next great hero and you’re left limping into obscurity. It’s easy to be sentimental on someone else’s buck.
That some of the rugby base can still affect to turn its nose up at such professional reality reeks of nostalgia for more old-school ‘ragby’ and the self-regarding baggage tied up in it.
Rugby isn’t better than that anymore. A player willing to turn down double the money in order to keep playing for their national side is either happily impervious to financial worry or a mug. And countering that with romance is either naive or a cynical attempt at steering an agenda.
The structure built up here over two decades has allowed the game flourish. Stark market forces haven’t been allowed completely reign and there have been considerable benefits to sidestepping the market sometimes, like the arrangements that keep Sexton and Jamie Heaslip at Leinster.
But those in charge can’t presume to continue incubating the game here from commercial and sporting reality. Picking the Ireland team on location rather than merit is simply unsustainable.
Plucking redolent old-school ‘ragby’ strings about identity is fine for fans. But rare is the professional that can afford to indulge in them. It’s interesting to hear O’Mahony consistently refer to Munster as a club, which is what it is, a commercial operation with goodwill factored into profit and loss.
Expecting him or anyone else to turn down a significantly better offer from France or England for the sake of any shade of shirt is not a runner. The sooner the IRFU acknowledge that, the better, even if it does seem all a little bit too football for some.
Digging the heels in on playing for Ireland will ultimately cost Irish rugby. And throwing the hands up and accepting the inevitable will probably cost too, perhaps no more so than in relation to the provincial set-up.
Fears of the clubs here ultimately turning into feeders for Europe’s richest operations are hardly groundless. But preventing players from playing for Ireland because they try to make the most of a short career at elite level won’t work.
No one blinked during the Simon Zebo contract negotiations and the result is a top class Irish player not playing international rugby. That’s a situation that benefits no one, except, ironically, Racing 92. It’s the sort of twist in the tale we can do without.