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Ulster Rugby contracts on the line but there's no rest for the players

 

Pen to paper: Billy Burns has already signed a new Ulster contract
Pen to paper: Billy Burns has already signed a new Ulster contract
Signed up: Marty Moore
Signed up: Rob Lyttle
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Christmas trees appearing in front windows, toy advertising everywhere you look and the ubiquitous presence of the Coca-Cola truck on TV. Signs of the festive season for most, but for many rugby players, this time of year means something else entirely - contract negotiations.

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Somewhat unique for the major team sports on both sides of the Atlantic, rugby's business is done far in advance and during the season.

While fans have largely spent the last two weeks either enjoying the Heineken Champions Cup or ignoring the Challenge Cup, for many players involved the games have been played out against a backdrop of decisions being made on their future.

In the past fortnight alone Marty Moore, Billy Burns and Rob Lyttle have all put pen to paper on new pacts with Ulster, but for many more littered throughout Ireland next season and beyond remains less clear.

There are star names who know they'll get the deal they want either here or elsewhere, but for others there are no assurances over when, where, or even if their next contract is to be forthcoming. 

As speculation mounts and tough decisions are made, it'd be a trying time for anyone, let alone those whose job security is played out and debated in the public eye while they're expected to maintain the same levels of performance. 

As Eddie O'Sullivan once said, "if you're an accountant and you lose your job, nobody notices."

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Naturally enough, insight into the unique stresses and strain usually extends little further than 'my agent deals with that side of things', but one former Ireland international did offer some bleak background once his playing days were done.

"You're thinking that if I get one injury, they've got me now," former Leinster flanker Kevin McLaughlin told the now-defunct Hard Yards podcast after hanging up his boots. "The negotiation can tip their way very easily.

"Where you are in the club, how you're playing, whether you're first choice etc will determine when that happens.

"They'll close off (contracts) for the really important guys that they want to build the squad around in September, October, November, then they'll move onto the next batch and then the next batch."

A time for squad players to develop a thick skin, it seems, but at the top end of the pyramid, Ulster have found themselves fortunate in recent years.

While there are a handful of players that, under different circumstances, Ulster would have kept with the IRFU's blessing, it's been some time since province and union lost a player they were on the same page over keeping.

Charles Piutau was perhaps an exception, but his deal in England was such that there was little chance of a continued relationship in Belfast.

There has yet been no Johnny Sexton or Simon Zebo-style relocations to Paris for those in the corridors of power at BT6 to deal with.

That is perhaps something of a surprise some two decades after the first concerted effort to bring Irish players back home from England and France.

"You can probably argue, if anything, that there should be more Ulster players going," reflected now retired skipper Rory Best this time two years ago. "Maybe it's because we don't really like to leave home.

"There is also when you look at that list of players in Ireland squads, the Ulster contingent has been relatively small on a consistent basis, and top English and French clubs only want the best as they are under a cap as well.

"There's maybe a side that says we maybe have not had as many talented players. We have talented players but it's not a conveyor belt like Leinster, we have to fight hard to make sure they stay."

Recent deals certainly fall into the imperative category but so too do some that remain unsigned.

Post-World Cup contracts figure to be the biggest flight risks among Test players, although Ulster are fortunate that the likes of Jacob Stockdale, Will Addison and Jordi Murphy are all young enough to know they have at least one more cycle in the legs. Securing that trio in particular must now feel like pressing business.

Naturally, it's player signings that make headlines, but in this day and age, it's retention that makes squads.

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