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Irish players facing 'stress and strain' as difficult contract talks continue

Munster lock Billy Holland highlights how difficult a time this is for rugby players.

Billy Holland is among the Munster players out of contract this summer.
Billy Holland is among the Munster players out of contract this summer.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Updated Jan 27th 2021, 3:05 PM

CONFIRMATION OF EIGHT new two-year contracts in Ulster over the past two days has been very welcome as difficult negotiations continue in Irish rugby.

With over 50% of all pro players due to be out of contract this summer, this is an extremely busy window for the provinces and the IRFU, who had put a pause on all contract talks until his month due to the financial worries caused by Covid-19.

Some players are already sorted and over the line, but others face a struggle to get the contract extensions they feel they deserve.

Many players in the four provinces are being asked to take pay cuts amidst the financial uncertainty, others are struggling to get more than a one-year contract, while some won’t even get offered an extension at all and will have to consider retirement. The already fickle nature of professional sport has been magnified by Covid-19.

As we wrote in our Rugby Insiders newsletter for members of The42 two weeks ago, it’s understood that Covid-related clauses are being inserted into some deals. These clauses could result in further pay cuts if crowds aren’t back in stadiums by 2022.

Of course, some of the bigger names and emerging stars of Irish rugby will do just fine for themselves in this contracting window but it is a very tough time for many professional players.

“There’s a lot of crazy contract stuff at the moment,” says Munster lock Billy Holland.

“It’s a tough time for guys. There are guys who don’t know what their futures hold in a couple of months’ time so it is a difficult time for a lot of players.

“They’re under a lot of stress and strain, particularly for younger guys. I’m 35, it’s a little bit different, but for young guys with their whole career ahead of them and there’s so much uncertainty and not many places to go to, it’s a very difficult place to be.”

Holland is one of those whose current contract expires at the end of this season and says he hasn’t decided yet whether he wants to play on into the 2021/22 campaign. He hopes to sit down with Munster, as well as his family, in the next month to discuss what the future holds.

The Cork man knows he is at the tail end of his career but he feels major empathy for those who are struggling to keep performing out on the pitch as they worry whether they will have a career beyond this summer.

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johann-van-graan Johann van Graan hopes to retain the majority of Munster's players. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We do talk about it and we are very open about it in terms of the stresses and strains,” says Holland when asked if the Munster players discuss these things.

“There are guys playing at the weekend and they’ve been told ‘we don’t know if there’s something there for you’. That’s a difficult place to be.

“You can just be there to listen to fellas and help them but my situation is so different. I’m 35, my career certainly isn’t behind me, but I’m at the far end of my career, so there’s no point in me saying to a 25-year-old, ‘Ah, you’ll be grand’ because that may not be true.

“I know that Munster want to keep the squad we have, but financially it might be a different situation. It’s just tough on guys, it really is.” 

Johann van Graan recently underlined that Munster are hopeful of retaining the “majority” of their players, with many of the senior squad out of contract this summer.

Munster assistant coach Graham Rowntree remembers how tough contract negotiations could be when he was playing but acknowledges that it is even more difficult in the current climate.

Rowntree is happy to reassure players but says Munster head coach van Graan is doing a good job on that front anyway. 

“You’ve got to put everything in context, not let things get on top of you, but Johann’s great at that,” says Rowntree. “Johann’s in constant dialogue with these guys, a very open and warm character that he is and he’s vital in this.

“I fully back what he’s doing but the guys, I’m not feeling any of that anxiety in terms of what they’re doing day-to-day. They certainly seem to be keeping control of it nicely at the moment.

“There’s a lot for them to be thinking about but I feel for them. It’s bubbling in the background but I’m not seeing any anxiety spilling over into the working day and they’re lucky, they’ve got a great man they can speak to at any moment, any minute of the day about it in Johann.”

First published today at 06.00

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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