2 December 2017

I don’t believe Peter O’Mahony will leave Munster, but warns if the sums don’t stack up at home, maybe the UK is a better option for him.

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Before coming to the Top 14, what I knew of ‘JIF’ amounted to a lemon cleaning product which was good on grimy surfaces. Five years later, ‘JIFF’ has a completely different meaning for me, and it is one that the likes of Peter O’Mahony and anyone else eyeing faraway hills should enlighten themselves on.

The possibility of O’Mahony leaving Munster for England’s Premiership or the Top 14 in France when his contract expires was floated this week. This is a new development in Irish rugby, players prepared to look over the garden wall and adopting a proactive, even aggressive, approach to contract renegotiation. Fair play to them. It didn’t really happen in my time. I never thought hard about leaving Munster. I had a big offer but was never tempted to jump. Maybe the novelty of Munster-Leinster derbies has begun to wear off for the players in both provinces. The world’s a bit smaller now. Lads in Leinster have won three European Cups. Is there the same appetite and incentive there for Irish players to stay put?

But Peter O’Mahony is the most Munster of Munster players. Pres, Cork Con, he’s Munster through and through in terms of his rugby lineage. I am sure there is a cracking deal there for him from the IRFU. I don’t know the figures, but uninformed articles that anyone can rock up to the Top 14 and earn €500,000 a year needs to be weighed against the fact that a good Irish international will earn €300,000 to €400,000 at home from the IRFU anyway.

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People have this erroneous impression there’s half a million for every international player looking to come to the Top 14, but only the very lucky ones — where timing and supply/demand come into play — can avail of those types of offers. The guys earning mega money come under two headings: the elite-type player and then the JIFF-qualified players. To simplify what a JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filieres de Formation) player is, one needs to understand its aims and background. JIFF regulations stipulate that Top 14 teams must have a minimum of 12 players in their matchday squad who are registered with the FFR for at least five years before they turn 21 or have spent three seasons in an FFR Academy.

The FFR were rightly alarmed at the influx of overseas players, but the JIFF regulations have had a desired effect. In 2012 61 foreign players were recruited into the French Top 14, but by 2015 season it was down to 34.

If you are a Top 14 club with money these days — and there are a few — you are filling your roster with JIFF-qualified personnel, plus a couple of overseas superstars on top. And clubs prefer All Blacks to Irish players. Of course, in one respect the limitations rewards mediocrity, but the net result is that it makes it harder for a good overseas international to get a gig because if clubs are going outside France now, they’ll only splash the cash on the best of the best. Where Peter O’Mahony might strike lucky is a wealthy club with a leadership deficit, or short a lineout expert. Hence the importance of timing. I am not sure how much of an issue the language would be for Peter, because I don’t know what his French is like.

Mohed Altrad has blown the market wide open down in Montpellier. That’s a club that can sign and sign. I don’t know how, but they have got in Cruden, Dumoulin, Camara all on massive money. But that’s not the case in every Top 14 club. And €300,000 to €400,000 a year at home, plus the McCreevy tax relief money and the care programme has a lot going for it. Also, there’s no commercial work on offer in France. In Ireland, the big names get lots of endorsement revenue operating in brand ambassador roles. Over here, you are just a number.

It was a relatively straightforward decision for Simon Zebo. He’s always had a hankering to live in Paris, he’s got family here, and wanted to try the Top 14. Plus he speaks the language. I’m not sure if Peter O’Mahony will leave Munster, but if the sums don’t stack up at home, maybe the UK is a better option for him.

Racing 92 blanked Altrad’s Montpellier 26-0 in the Top 14 last weekend, moving us up to fourth in the table. They were short a lot of front-line players, including the two du Plessis’, Picamoles, the afore-mentioned Yacouba Camara, Jan Serfontain, and the two Fijians Nadolo and Nagusa.

But we’ve hit our stride now and rediscovered whatever goes missing in a team a season after winning the championship. There’s been great learnings there as a coach for me — how Racing failed to follow up on the Bouclier last season but have got it back on track this campaign.

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Pat Lambie has recovered brilliantly from long-term injury, his game management is excellent. This weekend is the Paris derby against Stade and if we maintain momentum, there’s a big season there for the lads. The Champions Cup back-to-back against Castres this month will determine a lot of that. There’s a bit of me very sorry that I am not here to see it into 2018.

French rugby is in a trough and in the wake of the 23-23 draw at home to Japan last Saturday, the public’s capacity to be disappointed has almost been exhausted. FFR president Bernard Laporte has parked winning the 2023 World Cup and must now make a decision whether to stick with coach Guy Noves or move him out right away and take a different path. My head coaches at Racing, Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit, would surely come into consideration in that scenario.

Either way, the opportunity I want is in Christchurch in 2018. The Crusaders returned to pre-season yesterday and will break for the guts of three weeks over Christmas before zeroing in on the opening defence of their Super Rugby title on February 24 against the Chiefs. Once my final duties with Racing are complete on December 22, I’ll start looking at videos of the Crusaders to prepare me for my brief as backs coach.

There are bits of this job that I’ve never done. Exits is a key area of the game now — how a side transitions from our goal-line to the halfway line — and that’s something I will have responsibility for. I would know a lot of the Crusaders from the international scene, but not a lot of the squad players, but that can be a good thing as well. You can have a hundred ideas in your head but you really need to just walk into a place to get the proper feel for it.

Above everything else, I just want to get into the New Zealand rugby environment. That’s the thing everybody with an interest in the gold standard references. It’s widely held that the All Blacks’ rugby intelligence comes from the Crusaders. I can’t wait to see what they mean by that. People have visiting work experiences but you never get a real sense of it and taste for a workplace culture doing that. You need to be working somewhere, with real responsibility, to get to that next level.

As good as the autumn series was to Ireland, it would be dangerous to breathe in too much of the rarefied atmosphere that goes with being third-ranked in world rugby. Ireland’s consistency deserves acclaim but Australia and South Africa are not in form, and the reality is that our depth in key areas still doesn’t compare with a New Zealand or an England. If Eddie Jones was to lose Owen Farrell, it is nothing like the blow it would be for Ireland to lose Johnny Sexton. Conor Murray and Sean O’Brien the same. We are highly reliant on them and that’s fine, as long as everyone realises we are not the same team without them.

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