"Some of the big dogs, as we call them, will be getting big offers from elsewhere"
"If you're not getting your value as a player, you need to find it somewhere else."
Former Leinster and Ireland flanker Sean O'Brien told House of Rugby that he can see a few of Ireland's top stars moving abroad next season. While there may not be an exodus, he believes big clubs abroad will be targeting world-class and specialised players like Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan.
It has been over a year since Covid-19 entered the lexicon and 11 months, from a European perspective, since we first started feeling the effects of the Coronavirus outbreak that was elevated to a pandemic (in March 2020).
Most organised, professional leagues were affected by the pandemic and although elite sports have bounced back, and come up with contingency plans, playing in front of empty and sparsely populated stadiums has had massive financial implications.
Every major rugby union has lost millions, over the past year, and the latest lockdowns being imposed in the UK and Ireland show that while there may be light at the end of the tunnel, it is still faint.
Speaking last month, IRFU performance director David Nucifora confirmed that over half the professional rugby players in Ireland are out of contract at the end of the 2020/21 season. He commented:
"The majority of our contracts span one, two and three year periods but we have just over 50% of our players coming off contracting at the end of June so there’s quite a bit of work to do working with the provinces in being able to get that bedded down over the coming months. That’s going to take co-operation and work between ourselves, including the players and the players union to be able to get all that done."
Included in that 50% are the following high-profile names:
- Johnny Sexton, CJ Stander, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Peter O'Mahony, Jack McGrath
On the latest House of Rugby UK episode, Sean O'Brien noted how several players from Ireland, Scotland and Wales may be on the move in the coming months.
"For the unions," says O'Brien, "this may be their only way out, by the time this is all finished and passed.
"Obviously, not having fans at the stadiums is costing unions and clubs a lot of money, revenue and cash-flow, and the unions can't afford to fill that void. So, when it comes to players wages, and internationally-contracted players, it's going to be very hard to pay them what they're worth. And, if you're not getting your value as a player, you need to go and find it somewhere else.
"I do think you will see some players leaving, between Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Some of the unions might actually be on board with people going because they'll save money, have no expenses and they'll still be able to use their players. There is that rule in Ireland - speaking from my own experience - that once you play outside of Ireland, you can't play for the national team. There's a lot of interesting pieces will come out if that does happen to some of the frontline players for Ireland."
When that point was raised with Nucifora, in December, he insisted that the IRFU would be sticking to that unwritten rule of only selecting players that compete for the Irish provinces.
O'Brien, who is now with London Irish, says it may very soon be a matter of 'in comes the cavalry to sweep up some of these boys off their feet'.
"It's a short career, as rugby players, and people need to make the most of it," he commented.
We have already seen Edinburgh winger Duhan van der Merwe announce he is moving to Worcester Warriors, outhalf Adam Hastings (Glasgow to Gloucester) is off to the Premiership too, while Rob Kearney opted to move to Western Force in Australia rather than seek a new deal, last year, with Leinster. Marcel Coetzee is leaving Ulster a year earlier than planned to return to South Africa, later this year, and play for the Bulls.
Saracens and England hooker Jamie George noted that there would not be many teams in England and France that would be financially secure enough to add many foreign (albeit with a Celtic persuasion) to their books.
"Everyone is in such a bad way," he said, "and most clubs are struggling. You say there's going to be a big exodus, but how many frontline players could be taken, on a huge wage, in England or France? I don't know whether there will be a budget for it."
"I don't think there will be a big exodus," O'Brien replied, "but I do think you will have a couple of the highest paid players having to look elsewhere."
When asked how big teams could budget to get in an established Irish star, for example, O'Brien used Leinster and Ireland tighthead Tadhg Furlong.
"Take someone like Tadhg Furlong, in a specialist position, they'd free up, or get rid of, other players to get someone like that. So him, you look at Maro Itoje, James Ryan. These boys are special, special players.
"I don't think there will be a massive amount of players but some of the big dogs, as we call them, will be getting big offers from elsewhere as they're in such a privileged position, and that's their value. If someone is willing to offer them twice what they're worth at home, that's their value at the time. It's going to be an interesting one."
It certainly will be interesting to see how the likes of the IRFU or England Rugby do if the likes of Furlong, Itoje or Ryan were to receive tempting offers from abroad.
WATCH THAT EPISODE HERE: