Cian Healy the latest piece in IRFU jigsaw
Published 18/02/2016 | 02:30
And then there was one. Jared Payne is expected to join the rest of Ireland's elite nationally contracted players on a two-year IRFU deal to complete the set for performance director David Nucifora, who yesterday nailed down Cian Healy's future as the Leinster prop signed a three-year deal.
When Payne commits to Ulster and Ireland, he will bring the number of centrally contracted players to 15, with Jack McGrath expected to be upgraded to a national deal after one season of his new three-year contract in June 2017.
That would mean Nucifora has contracted seven players on IRFU deals that expire after the 2019 World Cup, with Healy joining McGrath, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Sean O'Brien as the spine of the squad who will, in the union's grand plan at least, spearhead Ireland's bid for glory in Japan.
When Payne signs on the dotted line, it will bring silly season to a close. Munster and Leinster are still looking to add an overseas signing or two for next season, a few veterans still have to sort their futures, while fringe players are still looking for deals, but by and large the big deals are done.
After some loose talk of an exodus, only Ian Madigan and Marty Moore will leave these shores from Joe Schmidt's extended squad. Others came close to joining them, but ultimately they were persuaded to stay.
Given the buying power of the French and English clubs, it is no mean feat for the IRFU and the provinces to convince their best players to stay at home.
Healy is an interesting case. Had his contract expired 18 months ago, Toulon would have done everything in their power to sign him, but his subsequent injury struggles left him with big-spending Worcester Warriors as his chief bargaining chip.
For the IRFU to hand the injury-plagued loosehead a three-year deal is a major leap of faith.
In recent years, the union have moved more and more to heavily incentivised deals and one imagines the 28-year-old's contract is heavily weighted towards pay for play.
When fit and firing, Healy is one of Schmidt's true world XV contenders. A barnstorming ball-carrier with rare explosive power, he is also a destructive tackler who adds so much to Ireland's game.
Unfortunately, that player has not been seen in an Ireland jersey for some time as a result of successive problems that have limited his involvement and de-powered his efforts.
In both last year's Six Nations and the World Cup, he was always playing catch-up due to injuries and never found form. Ahead of the current campaign, he underwent knee surgery and only came back on Friday.
Yet, the player's record speaks for itself and 28 is not old for a prop.
Healy has won three Heineken Cups, two Six Nations, a Pro12 and a Challenge Cup, playing 56 times for his country and touring Australia with the Lions when injury denied him a Test cap.
His unique talents and ability to dove-tail with Leinster colleague McGrath make him a key member of the squad when fit and Nucifora acknowledged that yesterday.
"Cian is one of the most explosive athletes in world rugby," the Australian said.
"He has proven for both Ireland and Leinster his ability to compete at the highest levels of the game. We are delighted that Cian has committed to playing in Ireland up until after the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan."
Having sorted his future, the goal now for Healy is to get his body back into a place where he can consistently perform once again at the highest level.
If Ireland are to resurrect this Six Nations campaign and hold out hope of Test wins over South Africa, New Zealand or Australia in their six meetings with southern hemisphere giants during 2016, then they will want Healy on board.
Centrally contracted players from 2016/17: Rob Kearney (2018), Andrew Trimble (2017), Tommy Bowe (2018), Keith Earls (2019), Robbie Henshaw (2019), Johnny Sexton (2019), Conor Murray (2019), Cian Healy (2019), Rory Best (2018), Devin Toner (2017), Donnacha Ryan (2017), Peter O'Mahony (2018), Sean O'Brien (2019), Jamie Heaslip (2017). Jared Payne (2018) TBC.