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Top 14 links threaten to cloud Joe Schmidt's early tenure

Questions on player contracts and the captaincy are overshadowing the visit of three higher ranked opponents.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt (right) with assistant coach Les Kiss.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt (right) with assistant coach Les Kiss.
Image: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

THE RELIEF IS palpable in the faces of the Ireland squad when a rugby question is asked.

Gordon D’Arcy is more than happy to extrapolate on Joe Schmidt moving defensive lines of nine from side to side like a Fußball [table football] enthusiast. Stephen Archer takes a deep breath before revealing tricks of the scrummaging trade forwards coach John Plumtree has brought with him from South Africa.

Inevitably — as they have done in each of Joe Schmidt’s press briefings since he became Ireland head coach — the questions about captaincy and player contracts arrive. D’Arcy and Archer are trained to give stock responses. Ireland are focused on their three upcoming Tests; moves are up to individual players; the squad has not been affected by the speculation.

While the players and coaches may act surprised at the interest in the destination of the the captaincy, it is an intriguing subplot that involves two of the greatest servants to Irish rugby in the past 15 years — Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. The fact that D’Arcy spoke about ‘any of of five guys up in the team room’ that could do the job only goes to prove that the players themselves are curious about how will be bestowed with the honour.

Joe Schmidt will end that particular chapter next week when he names his Ireland captain for the November tests. The questions about player contracts and the Top 14, however, will rumble on like a freight train all the way past the current series of games and on into the Six Nations.

imageConor Murray is out of contract with Munster at the end of the season and could follow Jonny Sexton to France.INPHO/Billy Stickland

We got a glimpse of the distracting nature of courting French clubs last season when Jonny Sexton was heavily linked to a move to Racing Metro. The outhalf was kept away from the media throughout a six-week period of denials and counter-denials but it did nothing to quell the story. The news was confirmed on 25 January.

Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien were the two players next in the spotlight, following Sexton’s move. Kearney empathised with the outhalf’s move. Speaking two days after Sexton was confirmed as France-bound, Kearney told 98FM: “If it works out really well for him in that he’s enjoying life and playing good rugby while earning more money, people will see that and it will open up a whole new ball park.” The fullback signed a two-year deal with Leinster soon after. O’Brien [on 29 January] told TheScore.ie:

You’ve only so long in the game and, as players, you have to look after yourself, your own well being, and everything else on top of that. They’re tough decisions to make but you live or die by them.”

O’Brien has yet to sign a contract extension and, along with Leinster teammate Jamie Heaslip, has been linked with a switch to France. Other Irish players that may be off to sample the gruelling delights of Top 14 rugby are Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray and Paul O’Connell.

With Irish teams committed to the threatened Heineken Cup, there is a very real prospect of Ireland’s best talents missing out on European rugby next season. Delays over the future of European Cup rugby mean contract negotiations will suffer in the impasse.

As long as the contract extensions remain unsigned, and Irish players are spotted as guests of honour Top 14 grounds, Schmidt and his squad can expect the same questions. They will have plenty of time to perfect those stock responses.

Like rugby? Follow TheScore.ie’s dedicated Twitter account @rugby_ie >

‘Play in Ireland to prolong your career, France to make an extra few quid’ — Kearney

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About the author:

Patrick McCarry

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