The news that Keith Earls is primed to sign a three year contract with English juggernaut Saracens has caused much surprise within Munster fan circles today. Is this another James Cronin story where the Cork man was apparently (if newspapers were to be believed) to sign with London Irish only to resign with the province twenty-four hours after the story was published. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the latest rumor and speculation and wonders if this purported move goes through, will there be more high profile players leaving Munster for pastures new?
Irish Independent’s story on Keith Earls has to be greeted on its merits, it is purely speculation at this juncture. As with any contract negotiations, counter-parties have provided the player and representatives with firm offers. It is now time for the player, his family and representatives to weigh the options and make a decision which will probably be announced in the next few weeks.
Why the interest?
Earls has many admirers across the Irish Sea for many seasons. The Moyross native has had his fair share of injuries but when fit, the Irish international has impressed in the three quarters and wing (where is his best position). His ability to score a try out of nothing evident in his solo cameo against Stade Francais at Thomond Park in this season’s European Champions Cup competition. His faint to pass and exploit a defensive weakness was there for all to see and his pace was enough to cross for a sensational try. This is what Keith Earls gives a team; a try scoring outlet. His flexibility to play multiple back line positions for club and country is a distinct bonus. The Lions tour capped player is known for his professionalism both on and off the pitch and if he were to leave Munster, it would be yet another massive blow for a province who need experience in a time of instability and transition.
Irish Player Exodus
If Keith Earls does decide to accept the offer provided by Saracens, it is another IRFU contracted player who has decided to ply their profession away from their native land for at least the next three seasons. With the vast money circulating in the English and French club scene, it would be remiss of Irish players not to look on with some level of envy. Ian Madigan and Marty Moore have made the decision to play their rugby away from Leinster next season and this strikes a fascinating backdrop for the IRFU and Joe Schmidt in providing clarity on whether Irish players based with foreign clubs are no longer in national team contention. With such a small player pool compared to the likes of England and France, can Ireland ill afford to exclude anyone with form and potential? The Rugby World Cup emphasized this fact in spades when injuries to key personnel arrived at the quarter-final stage and exposed squad depth issues.
Keith Earls’ move would be a shock for the IRFU and Munster alike if the rumors are true as it could accelerate the decision of the likes of Simon Zebo and Conor Murray to look at alternative options. Munster are in serious danger of losing massive experience in their locker room come the end of the season. It only requires an experienced player such as Earls to move on for other players to start to seriously consider a move away from the province. It is a cyclical trend; players will embrace the new culture, new surroundings of a net new club but ultimately with a World Cup four years out, I would expect Irish players to return to their native land and play once again for their provinces. It is a magnificent opportunity for these players. Their careers are short enough considering the concussions and injuries in the sport now. Best of luck to them.
IRFU may look at this as an opportunity to blood up and coming talent in the positions vacated by the players who have moved abroad. The IRFU cannot compete with the likes of Toulon, Stade, Racing Metro, Wasps, Saracens so the next step is to identify and nurture young home grown players. While welcome, the provinces will be in transitional mode for a couple of years. There needs to be a balancing act from the IRFU to strategically deploy IRFU contracted players to the four provinces and increase standards across the four provinces to help the emerging young players improve performance levels week in week out. Otherwise, a WRU scenario ten years ago will emerge with all the best talent leaving leaving the representational teams with fledging kids with big potential but little in the way of experienced players to help them develop in the game. It is a fine balancing act for the IRFU and one that Joe Schmidt surely has identified as a potential massive issue.
It is fair to say that rumors will circulate particularly on the futures of Conor Murray and Simon Zebo on the back of these newspaper reports on Keith Earls. Murray has expressed his desire to remain at the province; surely a deal needs to be concluded soon. Zebo on the other hand may be a different story as he is not under a central IRFU contract. Zebo has plenty of suitors in Toulouse and Pau where several Munster players are plying their trade with ex-coach Simon Mannix. I suspect Zebo will depart for pastures new but Murray will stay on and become the figure head for the province for the next World Cup cycle. Munster need to act decisively and secure their contract targets. There are at least nine players still out of contract come the end of the season. I think it is in the best interests of all involved and supporters to make clear who they intend to pursue and who they relinquish to allow these players time to find new rugby clubs. Munster administration are again faced with a stiff test of their strategical nous; a team which has faltered badly this season could be obliterated come May if contract negotiations battles are not won. Would Axel Foley have the fight and resolve to remain in the head coaching post? A province waits on with interest.