The end of January may not be decisive in results terms, but it’s the key period for closing in — or not — on those potential signings clubs might have identified and monitored for some time.
Here’s where a really good recruiter earns his corn.
The minutiae of personality, attitude, and values are as important as skill-set, power and mobility.
The budgets for next season are all but nailed down at this stage.
It’s a process that began back in November, and by the end of January, any club with ambition has a few good things in their ass pocket in terms of players coming in.
The less palatable part of the same process is deliberating and deciding who are the ones going out.
Identifying the player is one thing. Sussing out whether they’re made of the right stuff, how and with whom they will best integrate in the squad, is arguably more important.
You get that badly wrong and the club is left with an expensive prima donna on their hands.
The signing of Dan Carter for Racing might seem like a no-brainer once our president Jacky Lorenzetti had put together an agreeable package for both sides.
But his influence on others was another reason the club felt bringing the All Black would be productive.
He has formed a very strong half-back alliance with Mike Phillips, a man who might have thought his career was on wind down.
Suddenly he’s joined by a 33-year-old, who speaks the same language and the spark between them is obvious.
Mike’s been given a new lease of life just by having the right type of player around him.
Some were writing off Phillips, but I find him a huge asset for Racing, someone with a good attitude, pushing our other scrum-half Maxime Machenaud all the way.
These days, when you’re looking at a player it’s more about what buttons not to push. Some need love and some need whipping.
You ‘d be amazed how many actually need the love.
With players coming in under new management, contract cycles tend to be all over the place for a couple of seasons.
In an ideal world, everyone’s contract would be up at the same time.
That’s never the case.
It’s only now we are getting control of the players we want. Hence the next signings need to work not only next season, but the one after that.
The great thing about Racing 92 is there are no business boundaries. You can scour the whole world. No player is unavailable or beyond our scope.
There are limitations in terms of eligibility, of course. Fourteen of your 23-man squad have to be French-eligible, as in developed by French academies.
But the key part is getting them in at the right price and ensuring they will add the right sort of chemistry to the group.
There’s a reason Mr Lorenzetti is a very successful businessman. He leaves others for dead when he is in the room doing his stuff.
I got a pain in my stomach when I heard through an agent Keith Earls appeared heading for Saracens.
Racing 92 had looked at the possibility of signing him, how the figures stacked up. Age, terms, and conditions, what it would require in terms of something outrageous on the table that makes it too hard for him to say no. He is happy at Munster. He is Moyross.
He is Limerick.
He wanted a fair deal from the IRFU and he is the most decent guy you would meet on a very long walk.
I didn’t want to bring him to the negotiating table unless Racing had the goods ready to front up and blow everything else out of the water.
I spoke to Paul O’Connell in Toulon and he feared the worst too — it looked like Saracens were going high and the IRFU were lowballing him.
In the end, the union put together the right package — nothing outrageous — to keep him happy at home.
Earls, or anyone in professional sport, is going to look very hard at an outrageous offer from another club and if Keith had gone, with the way Munster is at the moment, it could have opened the floodgates.
It wasn’t the only disconcerting news Paulie had for me.
His rehab is going well. He’s in Santry for some of it as we speak and they’re the best in the business.
Racing face Toulon in the Champions Cup quarter-final on April 10 and Paulie’s going to be ready.
I don’t mind losing to Munster, but losing to Toulon in front of our own supporters with Paulie in opposition colours doesn’t bear thinking.
That’s too much of a horror show to contemplate, but Racing have put themselves in such a position with a no-show in Scotland last weekend.
Every player has a value, but they also have a duty to their own long-term security.
Maybe that’s where people fail to connect with the fact some players leave for their own reasons, and it’s not always a case of under-valuing the player involved.
The myth money in France is substantially greater than at home in Ireland is just that — a myth.
If it were true, the Irish squad would be playing in the Top 14.
Every player will test the market, and if there’s something incredible on the table, then realistically they’d be silly not to consider it.
Ian Madigan has left Leinster because he isn’t, and won’t be, first choice 10 for the province for a while.
Marty Moore doesn’t feel he had a choice either, though in time I suspect he will find that his switch to Wasps was a short-sighted decision.
He has plenty of time on his side in a position with great longevity.
I accept the game has changed.
When I played, the most rewarding thing in rugby was putting a red or green jersey on my back and soldiering with brothers I had a genuine bond with. There’s no contract price on that.
That’s why it’s heartening to see Conor Murray and Keith Earls bedding down in Munster.
I will look in more detail at the Six Nations next Friday, but I don’t think it was a bad thing for Joe Schmidt to put a rein on Irish expectations this week.
He said something similar to me when we spoke briefly recently.
Of the five Six Nations weekends, the Top 14 will plough on with games on three of them.
This weekend Racing face Oyonnax, desperate for points.
We are lucky in that we have only lost four players to Guy Noves’ Six Nations squad and that we have high quality southern hemisphere players on whom the Six Nations has no impact.
The show goes on.