Reports emerging from French publication La Montagne suggest powerhouses Clermont Auvergne have drawn up a shortlist of five players they want to sign for next season. The list includes Leinster duo Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, as well as Welsh stars Leigh Halfpenny and Alun-Wyn Jones. All four were important men on the successful British and Irish Lions tour to Australia over the summer.
The other name on their list is All Black centre Ma’a Nonu who is, somewhat bafflingly, without a club for the new season. He may never have quite recreated his international form at club level, but is still a world-class player who will surely sign for a top club – Clermont certainly fit the bill in that regard, although they are hardly poorly-stocked in the centres.
The news will worry Leinster, Cardiff and Ospreys fans, will all four of their stars out of contract at the end of the season and yet to agree a new deal. While the Welsh exodus has been well documented, only Johnny Sexton has made a high-profile move to France from the Irish ranks in recent seasons. Ominously, the man who brokered that transfer – Fintan Drury – also looks after O’Brien. He therefore has a better working knowledge of the French transfer market than most.
New Leinster coach Matt O’Connor is confident, however, that they will be able to hold onto their stars. He told the Irish Times: “We would back the environment to make it very, very difficult for them to leave, like we did with Jonny.”
Any deal would have to be brokered by the IRFU, to whom all international players are contracted in Ireland, and O’Connor believes they will be able to offer enough to keep the duo in Ireland. They will be mindful, however, of the example of Sexton, and must work hard to ensure that that does not become a blueprint as it has in Wales. Indeed, Halfpenny and Jones might well have fewer incentives to stay – particularly the latter, as he enters the latter years of his career.
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