Awaiting the decision …

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image001.jpgIt’s Wednesday evening and I’m still clinging to the hope that Saints explosive scrum half Kyle Eastmond may spurn the advances of Bath Rugby and/or of Sale Sharks, to remain with St.Helens and the engage Super League competition.

But at some stage this week (and Saints’ weekly press conference is tomorrow afternoon) I fully expect Eastmond and Bath to agree terms on a very lucrative contract (£200,000 p.a. according to The Sun); for which I heartily congratulate both Eastmond and his agent. Good on them both for cashing in when the market was at its peak.

I’m contracted here until the end of the season and I love St Helens

Eastmond said following the 16-16 draw with Wigan on Saturday.

I am going to do my best to win games and trophies for Saints. One way or another, it will definitely be sorted this week.

From Eastmond’s perspective, apart from all that lovely dosh, he may covet the higher profile that union players are afforded by the media in the UK, and too the prospect of a less physically intense sport that could lead to a more prolonged career.

Nonetheless it’s a big decision for a young man to make and I’m sure that is why this affair has dragged on so long. It’s a massive risk for him. To up-sticks and move home. To change sport; to leave behind friends and mentors, not to mention one of the most successful teams in Super League and his position at the helm.

But regardless of that … what are Bath (or Sale) thinking?

I struggle to understand on any level how this deal stacks up financially for anyone other than Eastmond and his agent. If he does move, then whoever signs him may well have snapped up a bargain; but only if Eastmond does indeed mature into the second-coming of Jason Robinson and if he can stay fit enough long enough and often enough to deliver at a high level over an extended period of time.

The Stats 

Season T G DG Gm
2007 0 0 0 2
2008 8 20 0 15
2009 10 44 1 17
2010 15 69 2 23
Total 33 133 3 57

Source: Saints Heritage Society

Physique and a similarity in running style apart, there is a cavernous gap between Eastmond and Robinson right now. At the time of his conversion to the union code Robinson was a mature league international star. Respected as one of the best players in the game over a sustained period of time – on both sides of the world and of the rugby divide – Robinson had proven himself robust enough to withstand the daily physical demands of life as a professional player.

Eastmond on the other hand is barely at the start of his career in professional sport. So, whilst he has already shown flashes of brilliance with his incisive running and strength equally his durability is certainly in question after an injury dogged season.

Of course, these may simply be the growing pains of a youngster making his way into a hard-nosed man’s game. However, without a pistol to my head I doubt I’d wager the mortgage on him just yet. He’s played fifty-seven senior games for the club; only 23 last season, when he was the number-one choice at scrum half.

Come in Number 7 

Who fills his boots at scrum half for St.Helens? In the short term I expect James Roby, Scott Moore or Leon Pryce spelling with a younger player such as Gaz Wheeler or Jonny Lomax. Michael Dobson would be on my hit list for the longer term though.

As for St.Helens, whilst they may rue letting Matty Smith slip so easily from their grasp, the loss of Eastmond is likely only a temporary blip; their academy has show itself capable of producing first team ready players on a regular basis. As mentioned, he was absent through injury at key times in their last campaign, most tellingly in the playoffs and Grand Final, and has yet to prove that he has the vision and leadership to prove that he can successfully drive the team.

That lack of leadership, rugby nous and most critically a kicking game, to my mind, always put him behind Smith as my preferred medium-term option at halfback; although it was a delight to see him at least begin to grow into the role.

That said, 33 tries is a pretty good strike rate. Will he get the same opportunities in rugby union though? Especially as Bath seem unclear what position he could fit into, probably centre, wing or fullback would be my guess.

Bath may feel that if they don’t move now the price will sky-rocket as Eastmond’s stock grows or that they may face increased competition for the player’s signature if he serves another two-years in rugby league (to take him beyond the Rugby League world cup in 2013). Both of which are likely true in the scenario that Eastmond is the real deal.

Yet that is a big gamble to take. Are Bath so desperate for a star half back? A top-class flanker would probably be the rugby man’s choice if the noises I hear from Bath fans is typical of the wider view.

Nonetheless the allure of scooping the next Jason Robinson seems to be irresistible.

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