Former Leinster coach Matt Williams looked at the Irish contract situation, with a focus on older players like Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls on Wednesday Night Rugby on Off The Ball.
The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) has announced that the reduced revenue brought on by COVID-19 will not alter their national team selection exemption.
This means that, if a player is not signed to a contract with one of the four provinces, they cannot be called up to the national squad, with a large number of senior players’ contracts expiring soon, such as Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls.
Williams feels that these senior players might miss out on national duty as they will want to earn money in Europe at the latter ends of their careers.
“I think a few of those players, who are in their 30s, perhaps Peter and Keith who are fantastic servants of Irish Rugby and Munster rugby, I think they are the ones that I’d be concerned about,” Williams said.
“I think [David] Nucifora (IRFU High Performance Director) and the IRFU, understandably, are pushing the contract negotiations back.
“I don’t think they know how much income they are going to get next year. There is some talk that the Six Nations will be pushed back… so that they can get some paying customers in.
“Until they know how much money they are going to get, they are going to very reluctant to commit themselves to wages, and some of the older players might find themselves on the wrong side of that.”
Williams believes that the lack of commitment to wages at the moment might push the senior players to look overseas, or else take much lower wages in hopes of continuing to play for Ireland.
“They are the guys that might go to Europe, or they will be put on highly incentivised contracts,” Williams said.
“We will pay you much less, but if you get picked for Ireland, you’ll get this and this and this. There is a whole lot of ways to skin the cat.
“That group of players is certainly not going to get the value they got before.
“Whether they decide, ‘ok my days wearing the green jersey are over, and I am ready now to go overseas,’ that is totally up to them.”
Williams believes that the IRFU is right in keeping the Irish selection to players contracted to the provinces is the right decision.
“I don’t criticise the union for doing that, as much as I’d love to have seen Simon Zebo playing fullback for Ireland,” Williams said.
“Their job is to protect the quality of the product in Ireland, and the Irish product as far as clubs go is still up there with the best in Europe.
“By saying, ‘if you go overseas, you don’t play for Ireland,’ they are doing that.”
Sexton, O'Mahony and Earls deserve exemptions
Ireland are not unique in this policy, as New Zealand and Australia both use a similar contracting system for national representation.
However, Australia has made some exceptions in the past, which Williams believes can benefit Ireland if they were made now, particularly for senior players like Sexton, Earls and O'Mahony.
“Australia have what they call the ‘Giteau rule’, which was made for Matt Giteau,” Williams said.
“Once you have played over 80 tests, then if you go overseas you can come back. Ireland haven’t brought that in, but I think that is something they should do.
“Someone like Peter O’Mahony, who has been a wonderful servant to Irish rugby, at his vintage, and after all that he and Keith Earls have given, they could be allowed to go overseas and come back to play for Ireland.”
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