With the confirmation yesterday of Leigh Halfpenny’s switch to big-spending Toulon next season, Shôn Douglas takes a look at the Welsh players on the brink of following the star fullback to the riches of France.
The great and the good of Welsh Rugby are faced with an unenviable decision to make at the end of this season. The continued uncertainty over the Heineken Cup and the in-fighting between the WRU and the regions is making even the most loyal players contemplate their futures away from their homelands, in favour of the comparative riches of England and France. With Jonathan Davies, Ian Evans, Richard Hibbard and Leigh Halfpenny all announcing moves at the end of the season, we look at the two Welsh players still in the shop window for the money men in Europe to lure to pastures new:
Sam Warburton – Cardiff to Toulon/Northampton
Wales and Lions Captain, Sam Warburton, has had a lot of ups and downs in his relatively short rugby career: injuries, criticism of his performances, the red card in the World Cup semi-final and the decision by Warren Gatland to select him as Captain for the Lions victorious tour of Australia could well have been the end for lesser characters. But Sam Warburton is not one to shirk a fight. He has come through all the above, displaying maturity beyond his 25 years, and has become one of the world’s best openside flankers through his hard work. One of his biggest tests looks likely to be the decision of where to ply his trade next season. His loyalty to his club, Cardiff Blues, is not in question. He had hoped to have a new contract in place before Christmas, but the ongoing feud between the WRU and its regional sides has thus far prevented an agreement being reached. As such, Warburton may have to leave for his own sake, amid what is a truly sad state of affairs across the border. The ever-ready-to-spend Toulon have been quick to flutter their eyelashes at the number seven, but it could be the Saints of Northampton who come through with the heavenly offer. George North made the switch from Scarlets to the East Midlands last year, and has enjoyed a breakout season in both the Aviva and Heineken Cup competitions. The opportunity to link up with his international colleague, as well as form a truly exceptional back row combination with England’s Tom Wood, could be too good to resist if the impasse in Wales continues to rumble on.
Adam Jones – Ospreys to Perpignan/Saracens
Having claimed to be “too old” for a move to France amid speculation as to where one of the world’s best tight-heads will be operating next season, Adam Jones has made all the right noises for Ospreys and Wales fans keen to see their front row lynchpin remain in Swansea. However, his age may well be one of the deciding factors in him accepting a lucrative offer to trade Swansea Bay for the Côte d’Azur. Each season the veteran of three victorious Six Nations campaigns continues to put his body on the line, and each season the spells on the sideline with shoulder and knee injuries respectively, have grown longer. He has cited a desire to look after his family and, knowing the clock is ticking on his glittering career, the chances of securing the riches offered in France dwindle with every passing season. It might well be now or never for Jones, and joining a side with one of the most fearsome packs in world rugby, as well as countrymen James Hook and Luke Charteris in the Catalan region would certainly make sense. If France is a step too far, then don’t rule out a move to Saracens as, in the last couple of weeks, Jones has been linked to the ambitious and ever-improving English side.
But there is some good news…
Alun-Wyn Jones – STAYS at Ospreys
There was welcome news this morning when Ospreys confirmed that their talismanic leader of men would be staying at the region until the end of the 2015/16 season. How the Ospreys have managed to buck the trend is unclear. There had been fears that Jones was exactly the type of player who would stir even the most blase of frenchmen into a fervor with his passion and work rate. Toulon, it had been reported, had looked to combine him with Ian Evans, who had already confirmed his exit to the south of France. Toulon are in the market to replace their aging pack and what better way to do that than with a fundamental part of the Wales and Lions sides that have enjoyed such success in recent years? Well we can put all that to bed now as of this morning and it’s welcome news for Welsh rugby.
But for every Alun-Wyn there is a Phillips, Davies, Roberts and Lydiate. Meanwhile the Irish Rugby Football Union has this week secured extended contracts for international players Keith Earls, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Paul O’Connell. With the Irish provinces facing the same uncertain future (both in Europe and the Pro12) as the Welsh regions, you would have to question where Ireland have got it right and Wales wrong. It would seem that the central contracts on offer in Ireland have allowed the union to maintain the services of their marquee players. With central contracts seemingly off the table in Wales, fans of the Ospreys, Scarlets, Blues and Dragons will be hoping a resolution to the European Cup crisis will be found quickly. If that happens then the knowledge that European and domestic competitions are secure for the time being may well be enough to keep the stars above playing for Welsh teams. If a solution is not found in the near future, the talented Welsh duo will almost certainly be forced to play elsewhere.