With the Rugby World Cup well and truly behind us, Irish sides are enjoying a strong start to the Pro12 with Connacht, Munster and Leinster filling out the top three places, but with a number of big players out of contract at season’s end, we look at the five players that must be an absolute priority for the IRFU.
1. Robbie Henshaw
Ireland’s Rugby World Cup hopes came to a crashing halt in Cardiff when Joe Schmidt’s side were played off the park by a more ruthless, and technically superior Argentina. The loss was the culmination of an injury-ravaged campaign for Ireland, and despite another failed attempt at advancing past the quarter-finals, Irish fans will be pleased with the continued growth and development of Robbie Henshaw.
Arguably Ireland’s best back at the tournament, Henshaw seems to be improving with every game in green and has cemented himself as Ireland’s first choice inside centre. At just 22 years of age, he has an incredibly bright future ahead of him and must be considered as one of the IRFU’s top priorities going forward. Whether that be at Connacht or Leinster, it’s vital that the IRFU keep the Athlone native on home soil and continue to monitor and nurture his development.
2. Sean O’Brien
A former European Player of the Year and one of the most destructive, powerful ball runners in world rugby, Sean O’Brien has been an instrumental part to both Leinster’s and Ireland’s success.
After overcoming several shoulder injuries in the past, O’Brien seems to have put his injury troubles behind him and has played a huge part in Ireland’s Six Nations wins over the last two seasons. With growing interest from overseas and a wealth of backrow talent at Leinster, O’Brein could be forgiven for chasing fonder pastures but his performances for both club and country have made him an indispensable force in Irish rugby.
If the IRFU want to once again scare off the likes of Toulon and Racing Metro from snaring the services of the Tullow enforcer, they must give him reason to stay, and financial remuneration will be a key factor in what should be a straight-forward negotiation process.
3. Jack McGrath
Leinster and Ireland props Jack McGrath and Cian Healy are both out of contract at the end of this season. Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt has had the constant selection headache of choosing between the mobile loosehead props for both club and country in years gone by, and it seems the IRFU may have the same problem this summer.
At one time an immovable force in the Irish front row, Healy has just not looked the same since returning from his latest hamstring injury and has been consistently outplayed by McGrath when given the opportunity.
Although Healy possesses unnatural and freakish strength and physical gifts, it has been McGrath who has proven to be a more reliable performer for Ireland and as such should be rewarded. Both men would garner the attention of a number of top clubs throughout Europe and deservedly so, but if the situation arises where the IRFU is unable to sign both to long-term deals, then McGrath should be made the priority.
4. Conor Murray
He has proven himself to be one of the most consistent and reliable fixtures in an incredibly successful Irish side. Murray is a genuinely world-class scrum-half and is a cut above any of his compatriots. Leinster’s Luke McGrath looks like one for the future, but at the moment Murray is the preeminent number 9 in Irish Rugby.
With the departure of Paul O’Connell and the uncertain future regarding Munster teammate Simon Zebo, Murray is not only a vital part to Schmidt’s Irish side, but is also a big draw in attracting crowds to Thomond Park. A mature and ever improving player, Murray has the opportunity to grow into a real leadership position at Munster and could be the face of the province for years to come.
With relatively scarce cover at the position for Ireland, extending Murray’s contract has become vitally important for the IRFU, because in the event that anything should happen to the Garryowen halfback, it is important that the IRFU are the ones to monitor him and decide when he is right and fit to play.
5. CJ Stander
One of the most consistent and reliable performers in Irish rugby, Stander has proven himself as one of the best number 8s in the Pro12 and a potential successor to Jamie Heaslip for Ireland. Born and raised in South Africa, Stander has only recently been made eligible to play for Ireland after passing residency requirements and is viewed by many as worthy of a spot in Schmidt’s side.
With a shortage of genuine international calibre number 8s in Ireland, Stander must be a big priority for the IRFU this summer as Jamie Heaslip isn’t getting any younger.
Full list of players of contract:
Rodney Ah You
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena