Zero Rucks Given: Jerry Flannery on the Heineken Cup and his flirtation with a move to France
This week Fla talks about the possible demise of the Heineken Cup and why he turned down a move to Clermont in 2009.
Well, well, the big news this week is obviously the split that is looming for the Heineken Cup. The English and French clubs seem to have reached a point where they have become so frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of cooperation by the ERC that they're storming off to set up their own tournament.
The strongest argument from the English and French clubs is that the other clubs don’t qualify on merit via league position. To be honest I understand that argument completely. I would like to hear the counter argument as to why it should stay as it is. I assume it is all about development of the game in Italy and the likes.
However, if I was an English or French player and I was sat watching Irish provinces resting their top players in the Rabo in the lead up to big Heineken Cup matches because they don’t have to worry about qualification I’d be pissed off too. Plus the English and French clubs want more money, fair enough, everyone does.
It’s a pity though as its a fantastic tournament for both the players and the supporters. Heineken Cup weeks always had a special buzz about them when I was playing with Munster. It was a great chance to test yourself against some of the best players in Europe and a chance to get stuck into lads playing in the English league that Sky Sports had been hyping up all season.
Sky Sports do an excellent job in promoting the Premiership but as a Rabo player I tended to have a bit of a chip on my shoulder feeling that the Rabo is of just as high, if not a higher, standard so it adds to the bitterness when you get to knock heads in the Heineken Cup.
I developed my game a lot playing at Heineken Cup level and it really helps as a transitional step from the domestic league to prepare you for international rugby. If you're consistently beating lads in the European games then you're going to feel a whole lot more confident and prepared when you run up against the same lads a few weeks later in a test match.
Or if you have an assumption that a certain player is a prick, then you play against him in the Heineken Cup, you're proven correct and now you can't wait to have another go in a Test match!
Somewhere in the middle they have to sort it out but after two years of this row brewing the English and French appear to have gotten fed up with their perceived lack of progress and walked out.
And from a selfish point of view I don’t want the Heineken to go. I don’t want some young fella asking me what I won a few decades from now and when I tell him the Heineken Cup I don’t want him to say ‘what the f*ck was that’? And the Heineken Cup is a huge revenue driver for the pub game and seeing as I love money sooo much I'm hoping they all sort this shit out sooner rather than later. Otherwise I'll have to arrange some sort of European rugby inter pub tournament. That's actually a brilliant idea. Leave that with me.
If it does split, the question of Irish players leaving Ireland to join English or French clubs will crop up again and this week I saw Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip linked with Clermont. Sometimes this can just be a bit of paper talk to scare the IRFU but these are two very single minded lads so I wouldn't discount the idea of either of them moving.
The French are renowned for their coffee which would suit Jamie down to the ground whilst there are lots of crepes in France which would suit Sean. I can’t speak for the lads but the idea of playing abroad is definitely very tempting.
In 2009 my agent had begun contract negotiations with the IRFU. I had no major desire to leave as I was happy at Munster but as other clubs started to show interest I tried to keep an open mind. Clermont were one of the clubs interested and that got me curious as to what it would be like to live and play abroad. I wanted to stay at Munster but I thought it was worth going over for a look, even if it was just so I could appreciate what I had at home.
Vern Cotter at Clermont's Stade Marcel Michelin
I went over with my agent during a break in the 2009 Six Nations and the set up looked really good, and with Vern Cotter in charge it was very impressive. They seemed a very ambitious club with fantastic players and they had a few quid to spend on top of that.
However, we had just won the Heineken Cup with Munster, Tony McGahan had just taken over and the training environment was excellent. I was playing with a lot of my best mates and I was having lots of craic doing it too. I just kept thinking I’ll be stuck here, in France, on my own in some cafe and I'd probably end up having to start smoking cigarettes to fit in, so I turned it down.
That said, I can completely understand Jonny Sexton's situation. He's achieved a lot at with Leinster, the money is good at Racing, it's an opportunity to live and play abroad and he should still have an option to come back home when his current contract expires. It’s no harm to have a bit of interest from abroad, especially if you are due a new deal, and I think Jonny's move will have strengthened the hand of the current crop of players as the IRFU will be slow to be seen to lose anymore of the country's top players.
The big incentive for Irish players to stay is the tax issue. If you play professionally in Ireland, when you retire as a professional player as an Irish tax resident you are entitled to a lump sum of tax back from your best ten years of rugby earnings when you retire.
That is a massive factor in keeping Irish players here. You may not be getting paid your full ‘market value’ on your central contract, but that lump sum waiting for you offsets it. And if you go away, there's no guarantee you'll be offered another contract back home when your current contract abroad expires , meaning you lose out on the oh so delicious tax-back money you’ve built up over your playing days in Ireland .
As a supporter now I see how important that is. We’re very lucky that the provinces are successful, but if the provinces ever stop winning, and the tax-back situation was to change, we could see an exodus. Matt O’Connor has been talking about the set-up in Leinster and how players can go chasing money or stay put, improve as a player and win things. Money is important but at the end of your career, it’s all about what you've won. If you don’t win anything, you're just another player that made a few quid playing professional rugby.
Speaking of Leinster, I see Lote Tuqiri is on his way on a short-term deal. I remember him hitting me once like a freight train in an Ireland/Australia match, so I’m delighted to see he’s still knocking around. He’s been playing rugby league for a few years now so I haven’t seen him in action recently. He's a proven performer so from the outset it looks a good move by Leinster.
We had a few short-term lads at Munster in my time and to be honest, some of them made so little impact you couldn't even remember their names by the end of the season, so it’s all about bringing in the right people. A guy like Brad Thorne going to Leinster was a no brainer. Chatting with some of the Leinster lads they spoke about his presence within the squad, his work ethic in training and how he raised the standards for the whole group. I trust O’Connor knows Tuqiri and wouldn’t have brought him in unless he could add positively that to what Leinster are trying to achieve.