Stuart Lancaster believes Declan Kidney and London Irish will manage their investment wisely by taking into account Sean O’Brien’s injury profile and the attritional nature of life in the Gallagher Premiership when the flanker joins the club next season.
There were no details of contract duration or worth when the switch was announced yesterday but, with unconfirmed talk of a three-year deal worth £450,000 (€500,000) per annum, it represents a big call by the club, given the volume of games the player has sat out for club and country in recent times.
No stranger to injury throughout his career, the combative Carlow man has missed the last three run-ins to the club season, meaning he has sat out two PRO12/14 deciders and a semi-final, as well as the European final victory against Racing 92 in Bilbao last May. All told, O’Brien has made just 26 appearances in blue through the last three-and-a-half campaigns — it is six seasons since he made double figures — and he was on the outside looking in this time last year, while Joe Schmidt’s Ireland secured an historic Grand Slam.
In 2016, he sat out all but 20 minutes of the Six Nations.
Viewed in that light, his signing constitutes a gamble and he won’t have the IRFU’s envied player welfare system to manage his workload when he ships up in England. It will fall instead to his new boss to use him in a manner that suits the player and the club.
Good thing then that his first 27 Irish caps were earned under Kidney.
“He’s probably got the advantage that Declan probably knows him better than anyone, really, so I’d be surprised if they try and play him in every Premiership game, in every European game,” said Lancaster, the Leinster senior coach.
“He’ll have the same impact at London Irish as he has at Leinster. His presence will be felt both on the field as well as off it, so they’ll use him and manage him wisely and, if they do, there’s no reason from what I’ve seen over the last few weeks that he can’t continue to play for the next few years.”
Lancaster was naturally disappointed that Leinster are to lose a player of O’Brien’s abilities, but he confirmed that there had been no offer of a renewed national contract on the table from the union and that this had essentially tied Leinster’s hands in the negotiations.
“It’s part of the nature of the game, unfortunately.”
Leinster will remain adequately stocked in the back row. Caelan Doris, Max Deegan and Scott Penny are already pushing the likes of Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan for berths, but there has, nonetheless, been quite some leakage from the top shelf.
O’Brien’s departure will follow on from the retirement of Jamie Heaslip and Jordi Murphy’s move to Ulster. Lancaster, optimistic though he remains about the quality still in stock, made no bones about the fact that this latest development is a “blow”.
He also knows what an opportunity it represents for the player.
It’s five years since O’Brien reportedly came within a whisker of joining Toulon for an annual salary said to be north of half-a-million euro. Soon to be 32, this was his last chance to commandeer that sort of fee and experience life as a rugby player in another environment.
Lancaster and O’Brien have both spoken of the attraction of playing rugby in London — the Exiles relocate to Brentford, west of the city, as of 2020 — and there is little doubt, but that he will be embraced by the club’s supporters, given his passport and his abilities.
Irish have already secured the Australian duo of scrum-half Nick Phipps and utility back Curtis Rona, as well as Scottish prop Allan Dell, for next season. Paddy Jackson appears to be heading that way too, after a year in France with Perpignan.
Kidney arrived at the club at the back end of last season, when relegation to the Greene King IPA Championship was all but unavoidable, but they are now nine points clear at the summit of the second tier and on course to bounce straight back up.
Their return would come at an interesting time.
London Irish are one of 13 shareholder Premiership clubs and thus in line to share in the £200m (€228m) windfall from the recent sale of a minority stake of the league to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners. There is talk too of scrapping relegation and promotion between the leagues in the near future.
How they fare when they go back up is another thing.
“Well, if you look at any of the teams, if you look at the way Bristol have been promoted to the Premiership this year and how competitive they’ve been, they’ve got more than enough resources to stay in the Premiership,” said Lancaster.
“If you have a club like London Irish, who have got a good set-up, good training facilities already, they can probably use their money on players. Looking at some of the signings they’ve made, they’ll be competitive. It’s a tough league, obviously. They’ve got a good academy and Seanie is a great signing for them.”
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