The IRFU have had a very proactive start to the year and have retained the services of a number of front line players as the union looks to ensure that the country’s top players remain on Irish shores.
With the World Cup over and done with and with preparations already underway in preparing for the 2019 campaign in Japan, the IRFU has made it a priority to retain the services of as many national players as it can, as the union continues to fight off the top English and French clubs for the best talent that the country has to offer.
The provinces have been just as busy with Leinster announcing 17 signings yesterday, which included the retention of Ireland’s Dave Kearney, Jack McGrath and Josh van der Flier amongst others, while Munster and Ulster have also retained the services of Simon Zebo and Stuart Olding respectively.
All will likely play some part in Ireland’s campaign in Japan in 2019 but for now they are contracted with the provinces and not with the IRFU on central contracts.
The central contracts are generally more lucrative and also allow the union to decide when players play and when they sit, so with that in mind, we look at who the IRFU have signed to central contracts so far this year.
The IRFU came to an agreement on Thursday with New Zealand-born centre Jared Payne, who agreed to a new two-year deal with the union that will see him stay with Pro 12 leaders Ulster.
The new deal will keep Payne the at Kingspan Stadium until June 2018 as the 30-year-old has proven to be a constant fixture within Joe Schmidt’s side since making his Ireland debut against South Africa in 2014.
Commenting on his new contract, this is what Payne told his province’s official website:
“I am very happy to have signed a two-year Irish contract to remain with Ulster Rugby.
“It has been an honour for me to not only pull on the Ulster jersey but to represent Ireland. There is plenty for us to achieve at Ulster and with Ireland.”
Leinster and Lions prop Cian Healy signed a new three-year deal with the IRFU earlier this week with the new contract ensuring the powerful loosehead will stay with Leinster and Ireland until after the 2019 World Cup.
Despite a slew of injuries since his dominating 2013 season, Healy has retained the faith of the IRFU and has been awarded with a new contract extension, despite the fact that Jack McGrath has beaten him out for both Leinster and Ireland.
Time will tell whether Healy can regain his spot as Ireland’s undisputed first choice loosehead, but in the meantime, Healy said:
“I feel that I am coming back to full fitness now and would like to thank the medical and S&C teams for their ongoing support.
“There are a lot of exciting young talented players coming through at Leinster and Ireland and I am looking forward to competing for silverware over the next few seasons.”
One of the most followed contract situations in Irish rugby was finalised earlier this week when Connacht centre Robbie Henshaw signed a new three-year deal with the IRFU that will keep him in Ireland until after the 2019 World Cup.
His allegiance to Irish rugby was an expected formality, his switch to Leinster however was not; with many pundits commenting that the 22-year-old’s switch to Leinster was further proof that Connacht is still very much the fourth horse in a three-horse race.
Commenting on Henshaw’s switch, IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora said:
“I am disappointed for Connacht that Robbie has decided to leave but pleased for Irish rugby that he has committed to a further three years,” he told the IRFU’s official website.
“I know that the decision Robbie has taken to move from Connacht is not one he has taken lightly.”
Henshaw also commented on the situation, stating:
“I would like to thank Connacht Rugby, the IRFU and Leinster for allowing me time to consider my future.
“This has been a long and difficult process and while I am sorry to be leaving Connacht I look forward to the next chapter of my rugby career at Leinster.
“The support I have enjoyed from the fans in the Sportsground and throughout the province is something that I really value and I want to thank them for four great years.”
One of the most consistent and valued performers in all of Irish rugby, Munster scrum-half Conor Murray pledged his allegiance to Irish rugby at the end of last month, signing a three-year deal that will keep him at Thomond Park until after the 2019 World Cup.
Touted as a future captain for both Munster and Ireland, Murray was one of the many Munstermen linked with a move away from Limerick at the end of the season with French sides Bayonne and Toulouse expressing interest in the player in the past.
His signature is a huge boost for the IRFU with Murray proud to be staying with his native Munster.
“I am delighted to sign a new IRFU contract to continue playing my rugby with Munster,” he told Munster’s official website.
“Having come through the Munster Academy it was a special moment for me and my family when I made my Munster debut in 2010, and to go on to represent Ireland is every young rugby player’s dream. I look forward to pulling on the Munster and Ireland jerseys in the years to come.”
Another player who was heavily linked with a move away from Thomond, Earls signed with the IRFU on the same day as Murray, with the 28-year-old signing a three-year deal that will keep him in Limerick until after the next World Cup.
Ireland’s all-time leading try scorer at the World Cup and a versatile utility player for Schmidt and Munster coach Anthony Foley, Earls’ signing was a big boost for the union as it kept the Young Munster back with the province and away from English champions Saracens.
Commenting on his deal, Earls said:
“I am delighted to have signed a new IRFU contract to allow me to continue playing my rugby in Ireland and I look forward to playing my role in bringing success to both Munster and Ireland.”
Technically signed with the IRFU just before Christmas but his commitment to Ireland is of the highest importance given just how much of a difference-maker he is on the field.
A former European Player of the Year and one of the premiere openside flankers in world rugby, the Tullow native was a huge priority for the union after heavy interest from French giants Toulon over the last number of seasons.
Like Henshaw, Murray, Earls and Healy, O’Brien’s new contract will see him through until after the World Cup with the Carlow man citing Leinster’s talent pool as a contributing factor in his decision to stay.
Commenting on his contract extension, O’Brien said:
“Growing up as a young lad in Tullow it was always my ambition to play for Leinster Rugby and Ireland, so you never take moments like this for granted.
“I am very grateful for the opportunity to sign with a team that I feel is going in the right direction under Leo (Cullen) and the rest of the coaching staff.
“I think we have a hugely talented group of players and coaches at provincial and national level and it is something that I want to be a part of.”
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena