Ireland boosted as Keith Earls commits to Munster
Keith Earls has rejected Saracens' advances to sign a new three-year contact with Munster in a clear boost to Ireland's battle to keep top talents on home soil.
Scrum-half Conor Murray has completed a three-year dual contract with Munster and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) as expected.
But Earls' dual deal with Ireland completes a late about-turn from the Munster centre, who came very close to a move to the Aviva Premiership.
Ireland boss Joe Schmidt rubbished suggestions of a mass player drain in the wake of Ian Madigan moving to Bordeaux this summer and Marty Moore heading to Wasps.
And now the head coach's bullish words have been backed up by the IRFU and Munster tying down two prized assets to new long-term deals.
"We are delighted that Keith has signed a new IRFU contract which will see him remain a Munster player until the end of the 2019 season," said IRFU performance director David Nucifora.
"We are delighted that Conor has signed a new IRFU contract too. Conor is a hugely important, admired and respected player and makes a real impact in every game he plays for Munster and Ireland.
"Keith is a gifted footballer and has shown great commitment throughout his rugby career for both Munster and Ireland
"The IRFU are committed to retaining players like Keith and we know that Munster and Ireland supporters will be delighted with today's news."
Ireland boss Schmidt had been at pains to reject outside insinuation that a host of top talents could now take up more lucrative contracts overseas and Ireland remain candid in their determination to prioritise the Test careers of those stars plying their trade on home soil.
Schmidt admitted Madigan's Bordeaux switch could dampen his international ambitions, though prop Moore only misses the Six Nations due to a hamstring injury.
"There's only Ian Madigan in the squad currently who has signed abroad," said Schmidt.
"Ian and I had a long discussion about it.
"When I arrived at Leinster Ian was learning French, so there was an uneasy feeling at that stage.
"I know he wants to play at 10, and I think he'll go into a head-to-head duel with Lionel Beauxis and fair play to him if he gets the better of that.
"He won't be out of our thoughts, but Paddy Jackson came off the bench in several of the Six Nations matches last year and Ian Keatley started against Italy last year.
"So there is competition for Ian, and there's always a risk in him going away."
Schmidt's positive mindset was also boosted by linchpin fly-half Johnny Sexton proving his fitness for Ireland's RBS 6 Nations opener against Wales in Dublin on Sunday, February 7.
Sexton was withdrawn from Leinster's 51-10 Champions Cup defeat to Wasps but passed initial pitch-side Head Injury Assessment (HIA) and has since completed further tests to return to training.
Ireland head coach Schmidt lamented suggestions his frontline playmaker should consider quitting the sport to preserve his long-term health.
Schmidt branded those calls "a disappointment", frustrated that observers outside the Ireland camp have questioned expert medical opinion.
"Johnny trained really well yesterday, he's fully fit and ready to go, he's passed his three (tests) so that's the protocol," said Schmidt.
"It was this time last year that the problem really arose and he had the break.
"Since that time he hasn't really had too many problems.
"He trained really well yesterday. I think he's good to go."
Outspoken columnist and former Ireland international George Hook has led calls for Sexton to consider quitting the sport over frequent head injuries.
Sexton was stood down for 12 weeks by French club Racing after suffering four concussions inside 12 months.
Despite Sexton's latest head injury concern, Ireland and Leinster have insisted the 30-year-old did not suffer a concussion against Wasps and is now free to play.
"All we can do is go on the medical opinion and he had two of the best guys that are around," said Schmidt. " When they give him the all-clear we've got a lot of trust in them.
"I have a number of dealings with medical practitioners that we have huge trust in, and you know they are the experts.
"If there are people who question that, again it's always a disappointment, but also a reality."