What a difference a week makes. As Ireland fans faced the prospect of our best players poached by the high-rollers from France, it now seems we need to have worried after all.
Two rounds of glorious European rugby in which all four provinces shone in their respective battles, has fans heading into the Christmas week with a warm fuzzy feeling that cannot be attributed to a belly-full of hot port.
The big guns from the Aviva Premiership have been duly silenced and the European ambitions of the Top 14 have been dented. This was not how it was meant to be.
The rebranding and reworking of the Champions Cup meant that English and French sides were to take a bigger piece of the financial pie. Coupled with lucrative broadcasting revenues and super-rich fans putting their money behind their support in the stands, a bleak future was envisioned by the former Celtic League sides and their faithful.
Money has talked loudly in France as a steady flow from Australia and New Zealand have come to show fans their worth. When it was announced that Munster were to lose the services of Simon Zebo at the end of the season, the notion that Ireland’s big names are vulnerable to the temptations of the continent became all too real.
The Corkman’s exit was feared to be first in what could become a steady stream of Ireland’s best and brightest heading overseas for adventures and riches new.
When reports of offers for Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander surfaced, things looked even bleaker. In the past week, however, fans have been given not only hope, but a real boost, with the news that Munster captain O’Mahony has signed a three-year deal with the IRFU.
Thought to be worth in the region of €450-500,000 per year, the inspirational back row has been given a considerable pay rise to stay. That said, however, the thought of him leaving his beloved Munster always seemed absurd.
This news was followed by the announcement that British and Irish Lions teammate Tadhg Furlong has joined his compatriot and committed his future to Ireland with a lucrative deal his own and shut down any talks of being tempted abroad.
The two contracts have done more than lighten the coffers of the IRFU this past week, however. They have secured the futures of two of the very best in the game, two who Ireland will need in 2019 if they wish to entertain any hopes of progressing into the latter stages of the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
While both could almost certainly have walked into Top 14 or Aviva Premiership contracts worth far more than those they agreed to in recent days, their commitment to Ireland is a timely reminder to their peers that playing for Ireland and wearing that beautiful green jersey is worth more than money.
Deciding to leave these shores, knowing that to do so is to cut short an international career, is not an easy thing to do. Representing one’s country is among the highlights of any sportsperson’s career.
Doing so in order to secure the financial future of loved ones is an admirable reason but it remains difficult nonetheless. Who are we fans to question a person’s loyalty for leaving?
Watching O’Mahony and Furlong resoundingly commit themselves to Ireland nurtures the hope we all have inside that when the time comes to travel east to compete for the Webb Ellis Cup, Ireland will do so with the strongest possible squad of players, all passionate about the jersey they wear.
To see O’Mahony, in particular, turning his back on the riches of France is almost like a rallying cry for everyone else to follow suit. Munster’s captain, the Lions’ captain and all but certainly Ireland’s captain at the conclusion of Rory Best’s playing days, the Corkman has become the country’s next great leader, their Paul O’Connell-like talisman.
Now, safe in the knowledge that two of Ireland’s best are to remain, eyes turn towards South African-born CJ Stander. With news of a staggering €800,000 plus contract being dangled at him like an oversized carrot at Montpellier, we are all hoping that he too will stay and confirm his commitment to his adopted home.
While it will take another deep rummage in the IRFU pockets, many are hopeful, perhaps even quietly confident, that Stander will remain and that he too sees the green jersey as an incomparable honour that money simply cannot buy.
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