Connacht to extend player contracts after IRFU boost
THE future of Connacht rugby looks to be secure for at least three years following an IRFU strategic review.
The Westerners have been operating on a year-to-year basis in recent times but can now set about nailing down their best players on longer-term deals -- they opened contract negotiations yesterday.
All but a handful of their players are out of contract at the end of the season and the province is anxious to move quickly after getting the green light from the Union.
Details of the new structure, which is aimed at taking last year's Challenge Cup semi-finalists forward for the next three years, will be announced in Galway on Friday.
IRFU president Caleb Powell, chief executive Phillip Browne and Irish coach Declan Kidney will be present, along with Connacht CEO Gerry Kelly and coach Eric Elwood.
Only a handful of players -- including John Muldoon, Johnny O'Connor and Gavin Duffy -- are contracted to the end of the 2011-12 season, so Connacht are keen to move swiftly on negotiations.
Top of the priority list will be hooker Sean Cronin, who collected his seventh Irish cap at the weekend against Argentina and is being linked with a move back to his native Munster, with Leinster also interested following the retirements of two former Connacht hookers, Bernard Jackman and John Fogarty.
Another key feature will be the contracting of Elwood and his management team, who were also given just a one-year term when they took over for this season.
Marshall threat to Pienaar spot
Ruan Pienaar, one of the heroes in South Africa's victory over England last weekend, could find himself out in the cold as Ulster welcome back their international contingent for Friday's clash with the Dragons at Ravenhill.
The former Sharks scrum-half showed just what a classy player he is at Twickenham, but may still have to be satisfied with a place on the bench as Ulster target a third successive Magners League win.
Paul Marshall, his replacement while he was on international duty, has been in tremendous form and is likely to continue his half-back partnership with Ian Humphreys.
Coach Brian McLaughlin may be tempted to give the likes of Andrew Trimble and Tom Court a start, despite their roles in Ireland's punishing match against the Pumas last Sunday.
With try-scoring sensation Craig Gilroy not included in Ulster's official Heineken Cup squad and McLaughlin looking for a serious preamble ahead of the second phase of the competition, Trimble looks certain to start on the right wing.