JAMIE HEASLIP HAS yet to sign a new IRFU contract to remain at Leinster but forwards coach Jono Gibbes has declared the Number 8 is not yet on the move.
It was reported on Saturday that Heaslip had visited France to discuss possible contracts with Toulon and Montpellier. A stray tweet, posted on Sunday evening about ‘unconfirmed reports’ of Heaslip signing for Toulon, led to pandemonium online.
Leinster confirmed, last night, they would make no official comments until this afternoon. Forwards coach Jono Gibbes faced the media today and, not for the first time during the course of the latest rugby contract saga, scotched rumours of Top 14 moves. Gibbes told TheScore.ie:
I think with all the rumours today about him being signed, as far as Leinster are concerned he is still in the process of staying and playing in Ireland. That remains open. He hasn’t signed for anyone. We’re still hopeful that he’ll ply his trade in Ireland.”
Brian O’Driscoll sparked controversy back in 2005 when he showed up at a Biarritz game and toured the facilities before signing a new IRFU deal weeks later. The practice of Irish players taking brief holidays to rugby-playing, French cities is common practice now but Jonny Sexton’s move to Racing Métro, earlier this year, adds a danger element to Heaslip’s optics. Gibbes admits the prolonged nature of the contract talks is frustrating for all involved.
“I’m sure the player wants to know what he’s doing,” he said. “From Leinster’s point of view, it is frustrating. National contracts, or any contracts, have a date when they are going to finish and leaving [negotiations] up to the Six Nations, still talking about it in his last year, you’d have thought it could have been sorted out earlier.
“Now, there’s reasons for that on both sides I’m sure. it’s not just Ireland’s fault or anything like that. I think clarity, if that could be gained earlier, would benefit everyone.”
Heaslip was a vocal presence at Leinster’s training session at UCD today. INPHO/Donall Farmer
Asked if he thinks Heaslip wants to stay, Gibbes responded, “I believe so. The contract conditions and the playing programme with Ireland and the money make it attractive for him to stay here. The home-grown club atmosphere that we’ve tried to build — he enjoys his work day to day and hopefully we provide that — I’m sure it would be difficult for him to walk away.
“There’s always things they have to consider, as individuals. How long they’ve got, what they’re going to do after rugby and maybe lifestyle opportunities.”
Heaslip is not the only Leinster back-row in danger of upping sticks to France. Teammate Sean O’Brien has yet to sign a new deal with the IRFU but may have to shelve talks to focus on returning to fitness after dislocating his shoulder on Saturday. Gibbes commented, “I don’t think the injury will hamper his market value as such because, the way he plays, every club will have to factor in the risks of having him on their books.
“We see a hell of a lot of positives at having him here. Ireland and Leinster will do everything they can to keep him.”
Gibbes is off to the Top 14 next summer and will take up a role as Clermont Auvergne’s forwards coach. The New Zealander can emphatise with the handful of top Irish players who have had their heads turned in a southerly direction. “It’s a different culture, there’s better weather, let’s be honest — especially the clubs that are interested in those guys — and maybe he’s paid a little bit more. I don’t know but I’d say money has got something to do with it.
“It is not [a decision] made lightly. I think Jonny [Sexton] has been pretty honest about how hard it was. Those sort of reasons may sound superficial but they’re not. There’s a lot of thought goes into them. That’s what makes negotiations so difficult. It’s not a black or white sort of thing.”
Gibbes insists he has Leinster’s best interests at heart while he is employed by the province, adding that there is no conflict of interest in him working so closely with O’Brien, a player heavily linked with Clermont. He said:
I’m employed to do a job by Leinster and I think it is within Jamie and Seanie’s best interests to stay here, to be brutally honest. The way they’re set-up with the player programme and the amount of games they play, with pre-seasons, I think they’ll get a longer career here and it will benefit the national team.
“That’s my viewpoint today. Ask me in eight months’ time and i might try and spin it the other way. In all honesty, being a professional rugby player in Ireland — playing for your national team, your home province — it is pretty well set up for you and you can have a pretty enjoyable career here.”