THERE was mixed front-row news for Ireland yesterday, with the announcement of prop Cian Healy's two-year contract extension with the IRFU offset by confirmation that hooker Jerry Flannery will miss the start of the Six Nations.
Healy (23) has won 13 caps for Ireland and has appeared for Leinster 68 times since his debut in 2007. The Clontarf man's form for province and country has excited the interest of overseas suitors, but yesterday's announcement commits Healy to Ireland until 2013, following on from similar recent deals with Munster's Donncha O'Callaghan and Ronan O'Gara.
Healy said he was "delighted" to commit his future to playing in Ireland for two more years and is focused on continuing his progress with Leinster and the national side.
He will be part of Declan Kidney's plans for the Six Nations when it kicks off next month, but Flannery now looks certain to be ruled out of the opening clash with Italy on February 5 as well as the following week's match with France.
The hooker returned to action for the first time since October last weekend, but he had to be helped from the pitch at the end of Munster's win over Ulster in Thomond Park. A scan confirmed that he had a tear in his calf muscle.
It is another injury blow for Flannery, who was forced to miss the Lions tour to South Africa in 2009 and last summer's Ireland tour to New Zealand and Australia.
The best-case scenario would appear to be Flannery becoming available for Ireland's trip to Scotland on February 27. The starting Six Nations hooking slot now looks to be between Ulster's Rory Best, Munster's Damien Varley and Connacht's Sean Cronin.
Varley was included in Munster's squad yesterday for Saturday's Magners League clash with Glasgow in Musgrave Park and coach Tony McGahan was also able to name back-row James Coughlan, whose cheek-bone injury is not as serious as was first thought.
The clash with Glasgow is especially significant given the vital Heineken Cup trip to Toulon the following weekend. Ronan O'Gara, Tomas O'Leary, O'Callaghan and David Wallace are all named in the squad, with McGahan likely to go with his strongest available line-up ahead of the Toulon clash.
Meanwhile, the All-Ireland League is expected to receive a welcome boost on Monday with the announcement of a new sponsor.
Ireland's domestic club competition has lacked a sponsor since the withdrawal of AIB at the end of last season, but an IRFU statement yesterday said there would be an announcement on a new partnership for domestic rugby next Monday, with IRFU chief executive Philip Browne and Kidney both in attendance.
It is understood that the new sponsors, speculated to be Ulster Bank, will come in on reduced terms over three years.