Heaslip deal with IRFU a major lift for Schmidt
THE IRFU have completed a clean sweep of retaining their top talent in Ireland after their highest earner Jamie Heaslip rejected a lucrative move to Toulon and signed on the dotted line until 2017.
The Ireland vice-captain's decision means that the rush to France that many anticipated after Jonathan Sexton joined Racing Metro last summer has not materialised, despite strong interest from Top 14 clubs in Heaslip, Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray and Sean O'Brien.
The news will come as a significant boost to Joe Schmidt ahead of next week's Six Nations as he will retain central control of all bar one of his front-line players ahead of next year's World Cup.
The Ireland coach has spoken at length about the impact a move to the relentless schedule of the Top 14 can have on his top players' availability and performance during international windows.
With Welsh rugby losing another of its stars to France yesterday, with Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny making the switch to Toulon, Heaslip's decision to remain within the IRFU structure is a major victory for the union, who were heavily criticised in the wake of Sexton's departure.
After O'Brien had spurned their advances last week, the mega-rich Top 14 club upped their offer for Heaslip, but negotiations remained ongoing between his representatives at IKON and the IRFU and agreement was reached on a new three-year deal yesterday.
The No 8 had been the country's top paid player on €450,000 per-year, but the union were keen to move him to a performance-based deal as he enters his thirties.
It is believed that he remains the market leader after penning his new contract.
Meanwhile, Keith Earls is set to miss the Six Nations after scans on his knee injury revealed that he had damaged his medial ligaments and will be out for six to eight weeks.
His bad luck has opened a door for Fergus McFadden, who will make his return from a broken hand in the Ireland Wolfhounds clash with England Saxons tomorrow.