IRFU winning star wars battle with French giants
O'Brien and Heaslip still flight risks but relief creeping in as one by one top Irish players spurn offers of foreign riches
THERE are still a couple of big battles still raging, but the sense is that the IRFU are edging the war on the big-money clubs from the Top 14.
The fear that Johnny Sexton's move to Racing Metro might cause a flood of top internationals to follow the out-half's lead is beginning to ease as one by one the top players have committed their future to their provinces.
Yesterday's news that Rory Best will remain at Ulster -- despite the attraction of a move abroad -- was another one ticked off the Union's list. Tom Court and John Afoa, Best's partners in the Ulster front-row union, may be heading across the Irish Sea in 2014, but the hooker was the man the province most wanted to keep on their books.
He joins Donnacha Ryan and Conor Murray as key members of Joe Schmidt's squad who have committed their futures to staying within the system, while Ian Madigan, Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion are other important players who have already signed on for 2014/15 and beyond.
There remain plenty of contracts to be resolved and IRFU negotiators Maurice Dowling and Tom Grace have plenty of work to do, along with Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson in particular.
Blues fans are watching on with a combination of fear and interest as their provincial rivals slowly but surely nail down their biggest assets.
Having loved and lost with Sexton, the Blues are wary of the attractions of the Top 14 and until the news drops that Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien have signed on for another couple of seasons, they won't rest.
The duo are the real flight risks on the list of those remaining to commit their future to Ireland, and every day the announcement doesn't drop, the worry grows. The rumour mill will continue to roll and in the era of social media the players can't help but notice what is being said.
Heaslip attended a Goal launch yesterday and refused point blank to discuss his future with print journalists, before expanding slightly without giving much away during a radio interview.
"In terms of contracts, much as it's a passion for a number of players and all of us have been doing it since we were young, you have to realise there's a business side," he told RTE.
"I have a great team around me in IKON (his agents). I just want to play footy for as long as I can, I feel great and I leave the lads to deal with it. I keep my cards close to my chest, hearsay doesn't stress me at all."
A Grand Slam winner, a two-time Lion and a three-time Heineken Cup winner, Heaslip has done it all here and has spoken in the past of his desire to see the world.
On the flip side, the No 8 is currently enjoying a week off after a hectic schedule and is unlikely to play again until the new year as the Player Performance Management system (previously Player Welfare Management) kicks in for his protection.
As vice-captain for club and country, he is a senior player and the best-paid operator in the game here.
A look at what his Ireland colleague Sexton is enduring during his increasingly difficult first season in Paris is a reminder that the grass isn't always greener.
Each player has his different reason for staying or going -- Best cited Ulster's support when he was dealing with missing out on the Lions last summer; Ryan wanted to stay at home with the World Cup in mind; and Murray wants to win something with Munster.
Sexton's woes could hardly have come at a better time for the Union's negotiators -- Schmidt spoke at length during November about the effect his time in France was having on his body and gave him a weekend off for the Samoa Test in an attempt to freshen him up.
The fact remains that O'Brien and Heaslip are currently at one of Europe's best-run clubs, and a look at Racing's performances against Harlequins will also have served as a warning.
As Conor O'Shea said at the weekend, big money does not guarantee success.
"Over two weekends we've taken nine points out of a possible 10 against a Racing team with a large squad," the Quins boss said.
"We were the better team, with emphasis on team, and that's what made the big difference. Racing had four Lions who started the third Test against Australia out there. Money can help, but it takes time. Sometimes you overpay players.
"Some people are maybe getting too much money and become comfortable."
It was something Jonny Wilkinson touched on when he issued a warning to players contemplating a move to his club Toulon.
"You don't come here to sponge off Toulon or sponge off the area or the climate," he said. "You come to add something to the environment and if you do that, you will get it all back."
Certainly, the Union and the province would play them less than they do in France, and chief executive Philip Browne stressed that player welfare was a major selling point for the IRFU in their negotiations.
The IRFU's head of fitness Dave Clark echoed that point when speaking to the Irish Independent yesterday, saying: "Without a doubt, there has got to be a significant benefit from being in that structure.
"I want it to be absolutely clear that if a player has to make a call about where they have their contract, they are considering the quality of the strength and conditioning support they have in Ireland as one of their one, two three factors of whether they should move because the department is so respected and it delivers."
So far, it appears that the Union have been able to sell their message, perhaps helped by the examples of those that have gone before, the provinces' performances in Europe in recent weeks and the good vibrations coming out of Ireland camp in November.
The IRFU have gotten a number of big names over the line and into the stable, but there still remains plenty of work to be done before they can declare victory.
Refused to be drawn on his future at a charity launch yesterday, but currently mulling over the prospect of staying with Leinster as well as strong interest from Toulon and Montpellier. A real flight risk.
Like the Ireland vice-captain, O'Brien is majorly in demand and the back-row faces a difficult call. The lure of home is strong for the Tullow native, but he is a world-class operator who is attracting major interest from the Top 14.
Donnacha Ryan -- DONE DEAL
Spurned offers from Perpignan, London Irish and two other clubs to commit to Munster, with the length of the second-row's contract the major talking point. The money may have been greater in France, but the IRFU offered long-term security by nailing Ryan down until 2017.
Has put off any decision on his future until after Christmas, but his recent upturn in form is timely given the stage he is at. May get a run at No 13 as Munster look to replace Casey Laulala.
Said last week that his negotiations are at a "delicate"stage, but it is increasingly likely that the Munster stalwart and Ireland captain will remain at home and finish his career a one-club man.
Rory Best -- DONE DEAL
Signed a new two-year deal yesterday, bringing relatively muted speculation about his future to a close. The hooker will remain at Ravenhill until 2016.
Conor Murray -- DONE DEAL
The sighs of relief in Munster were audible last week when the scrum-half committed for two more years. A big coup for the Union.
Interest from France and England may turn the younger Kearney brother's head, but having nailed down his starting place with Leinster and broken into the international set-up, a move may have to wait.
Still no word on the scrum-half's future, but his form for Leinster should secure him a few more years.