IRFU feel heat as French eye Conor Murray
CONOR MURRAY has been identified as a target for a number of French Top 14 and English Premiership sides.
The Ireland scrum-half is out of contract at the end of the season and sources in France have confirmed that a number of clubs – including Toulouse and Bayonne – are keen to make the 24-year-old a firm offer.
A number of Premiership clubs are also keeping a close watch on Murray and some of his Ireland team-mates as the IRFU face into a period of fraught negotiations with their marquee players.
It is ridiculously early in the season, but such is the changing landscape of European rugby that the speculation linking some of Ireland's soon-to-be out-of-contract players with Europe's nouveau riche clubs has already begun.
Racing Metro's capture of the highly-coveted Sexton has given French and English clubs renewed vigour.
They now see Ireland as a potential feeding ground and, allied with the uncertainty over the future of the Heineken Cup, they are expected to step up their interest in the coming weeks.
Offers are understood to have already been tabled to some players' representatives and unless the IRFU moves quickly to tie up those players who are in the final year of their contracts, there is genuine concern that the likes of Murray, O'Brien, Heaslip and others may be tempted to leave.
Murray is the most interesting case in point. The 24-year-old scrum-half is highly coveted on both sides of the English Channel. Munster are believed to be deeply worried they may lose him unless the IRFU ties him up quickly.
He is still developing as a player, but his profile has never been higher after a hugely successful Lions tour when he was the standout half-back.
Murray is the perfect recruitment candidate for overseas clubs as a move outside of Ireland would not damage his international career.
In fact, a couple of seasons experiencing life outside Ireland's suffocating environment would further develop his game. He is also young enough to return to Ireland in time and benefit from the 10-year tax-back programme.
Murray, O'Brien and Heaslip are the three players who will garner most of the headlines over the coming weeks and all three are likely to be watching the negotiations around the Heineken Cup very closely.
In the past the IRFU has been accused of being slow to enter into negotiations. Ireland had already played and beaten Wales in last season's Six Nations championship opening game before their negotiations with Rob Kearney were concluded.
Surely the IRFU will move quicker this year to finalise the deals.
Munster's Donnacha Ryan is also in the final year of his contract. the Reds hierarchy are surely on bended knees praying that their IRFU paymasters don't hesitate in offering the Tipperary second-row acceptable terms.
It's often easy to overlook Ryan's quality because of the higher profile players around him.
But where would Ireland have been without him last season when he battled through a plethora of injuries to play in the Six Nations?
He was one of the foundation stones for Ireland and, indeed, for Munster as both teams struggled to overcome the lengthy absence of Paul O'Connell.
Ryan has been a target for English clubs in the past. Before he signed his second-last contract, he travelled to England and talked terms with Northampton Saints. He was also linked with Leinster two years ago.
There are personal reasons why a move to Dublin would appeal to the 29-year-old, but, of course, any development in this direction is also dependant on the IRFU making him an offer he is happy to accept.
There are always a number of players out of contract at the end of every season.
Gordon D'Arcy is another whose current deal expires at the end of the campaign. He will also court attention from England and France, but is less likely to move because of his age profile and the tax-back incentive.
D'Arcy turns 34 years next February and this is likely to be the last contract of his professional life. He will be keen to finish his career in Ireland and avail of the tax-back benefit.
Munster's James Downey and Keith Earls are also out of contract at the end of this season. The former is only two years back in Ireland and won't be a big beneficiary of the tax-back claim. His negotiations, if there are to be some, will be with Munster and not the IRFU.
Earls turns 26 next month, but after an injury-interrupted couple of seasons, his negotiating position is slightly weaker than it was two years ago when he signed until 2014.
He has negotiated directly with the IRFU on one of their coveted 'national' contracts until now. It's probable the negotiations with Earls will be straight-forward and it's hugely unlikely he will be playing for anyone other than Munster next season.
The fear for the IRFU and the Irish provinces is that Sexton's move to Racing Metro and the continuing worries over the future of the Heineken Cup will make it open-season on Ireland's international players. It is likely those fears are not without foundation.
Memo to the IRFU: get your negotiating team and your cheque books together sooner rather than later.