Connacht officials have launched a blistering attack on Leinster Rugby chiefs over their pursuit of Irish international Mike McCarthy.
The Heineken Cup champions have secured the signature of the 31-year-old lock for next season but the development has created a firestorm out west.
In a hard-hitting statement, Connacht chief executive Tom Sears made little attempt to hide his disappointment and anger at the manner in which McCarthy was pursued.
“We have been aware of Leinster’s interest in Mike for some time. It is disappointing they have persistently targeted Connacht players in recent years, particularly when often not in the best interest of Irish rugby.
“We have done everything we can to keep him. Mike has always been up front about it and we wish him the best. But we are bitterly disappointed to lose Mike, who has been a popular senior member of our squad.
“While disappointed, particularly given the continued success of Connacht Rugby in recent years, we respect the individual player’s decision and wish Mike every success in his future playing career.”
Sears said they would work with the IRFU “to find a world-class replacement” for McCarthy.
Leinster declined to comment on the statement when contacted last night.
Sears’ predecessor at the helm, Gerry Kelly, revealed McCarthy was on Leinster’s radar for a number of seasons. He said keeping players in the province had always “been one of the biggest challenges” of his tenure, an issue which was exacerbated by Connacht’s small squad which resulted in huge turnovers every season.
Among the most notable players who departed for other provinces during Kelly’s tenure were Sean Cronin, Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan (Leinster), Jerry Flannery and Ian Keatley (Munster), while Eoin Reddan, Johnny O’Connor, Gavin Duffy, and Damien Browne headed cross-channel before returning to Ireland.
Jerry Flannery, who began his professional career with Connacht, went on to have a successful tenure with his native Munster and Ireland, but many believe the careers of others have faltered.
“Many of those players were noticed by the other provinces because they were getting regular starts with Connacht, but you would have to argue if many of their careers have moved on since they left,” said Kelly.
“Leinster always appear to look west, although they could possibly argue we look east to their young players. Now with the curb on foreign players, all provinces are increasingly looking to each other for experienced players.”
Kelly said Connacht had continued to raise this plight with the IRFU but to no avail. The IRFU takes the view that it is a players’ choice, but there are many who believe the IRFU, as the paymasters, can contract players to different provinces.
Now Connacht begin the task of finding a replacement for McCarthy, who joined them in 2004 from Wasps. A former England underage player, McCarthy has been an integral member of the squad both on and off the field during his two tenures. After three years with Newcastle Falcons, he returned in 2007, earning his 100th cap for Connacht against Bayonne in the 2010/11 European Challenge Cup.
Meanwhile, Connacht’s anger with Leinster over McCarthy’s move has been exacerbated by an attempt by Munster and Ulster to sign teenage sensation Robbie Henshaw.
The 19-year old has been one of the finds of the season, with Connacht coach Eric Elwood tipping him as a future Irish international shortly after he made his debut at the outset of the campaign.
Henshaw, who was playing schools’ rugby six months ago and who did his Leaving Cert during the summer, has played in every game for Connacht this season and has nailed down the full-back spot ahead of captain Gavin Duffy.
His performances have attracted interest from far and wide, with Munster and Ulster seeking to tempt the Athlone youngster to make a quick switch.
However, Connacht supporters will be relieved to hear that unlike McCarthy they have managed to hold on to their young starlet, who has agreed terms on a deal which will keep him at the Sportsground until the summer of 2015.
But Connacht officials are angry that their players are being targeted by the other Irish provinces, especially as provinces are not allowed to outbid each other with regards to players’ wages.
Connacht’s agreement with Henshaw follows successful deals being struck with other emerging young talent such as Denis Buckley and Kieran Marmion.
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