Murray deal a huge forward step for IRFU
Munster thrilled after coup boosts Irish asset management, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
CONOR MURRAY's ears must have been melting by yesterday afternoon as one by one the leading lights of Munster rugby lined up to hail their scrum-half.
If only praise could mend damaged ligaments, the Lion might be able to help the cause in Perpignan this weekend, but while his injured knee will keep him out of this particular battle, signing the 24-year-up for a further two years will help the province's cause for the wars ahead.
As Leinster fret over the future of their back-row stars Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien, there remains a strong argument that securing Murray until 2016 is the most important business the IRFU could have done this season.
After Monday was dominated by an internet rumour concerning a potential French raid, the Union delivered some cold, hard news yesterday morning as they confirmed their coup.
Murray was in demand in France after his meteoric rise to Ireland's premier No 9, and securing his services represents a significant bit of business.
Ireland does not have a tradition of producing world-leading scrum-halves, but the 24-year-old has all the tools necessary to go on and become an all-time great in the position. By wearing a different shade of red in the final Test last July after forcing his way from third choice onto the Lions bench, Murray joined an elite club.
Losing him to France may have hindered his position with Ireland slightly, but his class would have overcome that.
It was Munster who had the most to lose if their home-grown hero had taken the gold-plated road to France.
After their decade in the sun, the province are rebuilding around the likes of Murray, Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and Simon Zebo.
As the heroes of the 2000s retire, the onus on the new generation to step up grows.
"I just want to replicate that and be seen as a successful Munster player," Murray said last night. "Munster base themselves on winning Heineken Cups and we want to have a part of that.
"There's a group of young players, Peter O'Mahony, Mike Sherry, Dave Kilcoyne -- a bunch of guys who are beginning to make a name for themselves, and with that group we're capable of doing something special in the future."
One of the last men standing from the Heineken Cup winning teams, Paul O'Connell, reflected on the significance of keeping hold of the talented scrum-half in the context of building this new era of success.
"It's great," O'Connell said. "We lost a group of players over the last few years -- some of them earlier than we would have hoped. They were leaders in many ways, not just in how they played but in how they trained and how they lived their lives and prepared.
"That can affect a team when you lose guys like that, so to see these new guys coming through, the way they prepare, how much it means for them to play for Munster... It's a great thing, as an old fella, to see young guys with that kind of passion and enthusiasm for playing with the province.
"It shows that a lot of what's going on in Munster is very good and these guys really want to commit to it for the future."
The Ireland captain wants to play on until 2016, but he has already passed the Munster leadership baton on to one of the new guard.
Skipper O'Mahony pledged his future to Ireland and Munster last January, penning a deal that brought him up to the end of next season. He spoke last month about players needing to look out for themselves first when they were sorting their own futures, but was pleased that Murray was committing to the cause yesterday.
"I'm thrilled to bits really," he said. "He's a very close friend of mine so it's going to be great to have him around for two more years. He's been a hugely important part of our team over the last few years, now he's a Lion and an established international so he's a hugely important cog at Munster, so it's great to have him sign on again.
"He's a big driver of our team and he takes control of a couple of areas himself and he looks after them video-wise. Knowledge-wise, he's the man to go to about detail. He drives that side of things for us.
"He's got a massive, massive amount of experience and the amount of games he has had as well, he's established international player now and a Lion -- and that's done nothing but good for his confidence.
"He's a confident player now and he's so important for our team."
It remains to be seen whether coach Rob Penney will be around to work with Murray and this young generation of players in the coming seasons, with his own future unresolved. One suspects victory in Perpignan would help sort that out.
The coach has been hugely impressed with the scrum-half he has to do without for the next six weeks and agreed that the player's desire to stay is vindication of the progress the club are making.
"Hopefully they see this as an avenue to get out of the game what they dearly want, which is to win some championships, win some trophies and enhance their playing ability and reputations and also play at the highest level, which is international rugby, by staying here," the New Zealander said.
Signing Keith Earls, O'Connell and Donnacha Ryan up to new deals represents the next step.
Cardiff Blues back-row Robin Copeland is on board for next season after his representatives contacted Munster to make the club aware of the Wexford's man's talents and they jumped at the chance, but Casey Laulala is heading off to work with Bernard Jackman in Grenoble and needs replacing.
Meanwhile, the IRFU's Maurice Dowling and Tom Grace turn their attention towards the in-demand Heaslip and O'Brien, while deals need to be done for O'Connell, Rory Best and host of other Ireland internationals.
Yesterday's deal represented a good day for the province and the national team and while it was only a step on the road, given Murray's quality and his importance to club and country, it was a significant one.
Ireland players out of contract
Signing Conor Murray up to a two-year deal was good business for Munster and the IRFU, but the Union and the province still have a busy few months ahead, with a host of other talent to tie down.
Linked with Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse, Ireland's best-paid player is in a rich vein of form and has spoken of a desire to see the world. However, Leinster remain hopeful of keeping him and Clermont's landing of Fritz Lee and the presence of Louis Picamoles at Toulouse makes the logic of a switch questionable.
The most sought-after of all of Ireland's stars, with Racing Metro and Clermont interested. The Tullow Tank is enjoying a brilliant season. His close links to home are a major draw, but it may depend on the IRFU offer, which was below the player's valuation earlier this year.
Perpignan have all but given up on landing Ryan, who visited their facilities in October, but the second-row has a number of suitors in England and France.
Earls has not been mentioned with regard to a move and said earlier this season he wasn't thinking about his future until after Christmas. With Casey Laulala's likely departure, a move into the Munster No 13 shirt may be the likeliest option.
Spoke of his desire to see France and then distanced himself from the comments. Yesterday, the veteran lock (right) described the negotiations as being at a "delicate" stage. Hard to see the Ireland captain leaving.
A one-club man about whom little is speculated, Best has developed into one of the Ireland team's key leaders, while his importance to Ulster is paramount. With John Afoa's exit freeing up budget in Belfast, he is likely to be tied down.
The younger Kearney has attracted interest from England and France, but having finally broken into the Leinster first team and won two caps, he will want to keep that momentum going.
Showed his worth at Franklin's Gardens after a rocky November. Leinster will want to keep hold of him, despite the development of two young prospects in Luke McGrath and John Cooney.
The same goes for the Kiwi-born No 9 who found himself back in the Ireland frame last month.
Has said he wants another season at least with Leinster and is not looking abroad.
Leinster's promising tighthead is set to snub big offers from Castres, Racing and Exeter to stay with his native province.