Tony Ward: O'Brien wise to stay in a place where people make him feel special
Down-to-earth normality of home best place for Tullow Tank
SELDOM, if ever, has the future of a couple of rugby players garnered such media interest as that surrounding Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
And while rugby fans may not be in the same stratosphere as football in terms of numbers, it is fair to say that this nation cares much more that O'Brien and Heaslip sign on the dotted line to stay at home than whether Shane Long, for example, moves from West Brom to Hull or whoever.
The difference -- and here the IRFU deserve enormous credit -- is that our rugby heroes are home-based. They exist in the real world we all inhabit. They are, for the most part, very approachable. Whether you are a Brian O'Driscoll at the top of the game or a Jordi Murphy making his way, to the ordinary man in the street you are one and the same.
I remember talking to Eamonn Coghlan about this some years ago around the time he was 'Chairman of the Boards' and in his pomp.
He wasn't afraid to admit he loved the red carpet treatment he got almost everywhere he went at that time in the States, but at the same time he was well aware that back in Dublin it was a case of 'howya Eamonn, how's it going?'
He cherished the warmth of down-to-earth normality that epitomises Dublin and Ireland to this day.
So for our top players, earning a really good living in the place you are most happy, among people that make you feel that little bit special for what you do, is a great thing.
I know only too well it is a relatively short playing career. For all those reasons and many more, the news of the 'Tullow Tank' committing to stay home is a boost to Irish rugby in every way.
Because of the similarity in playing styles -- although not quite in physique -- a parallel could be drawn with Stephen Ferris and how one body-wrecking run too many has taken its toll.
I can see the comparison but I don't accept it is as simple as that. The Carlow native is relatively quiet by nature. He leads in what he does for Leinster and Ireland, not by what he says.
Not for a minute would I suggest that he is a Paul O'Connell-type figure, but he is closer to Munster's iconic leader than any other individual in the Leinster set-up.
So while he may be injured for the remainder of the season, his re-signing is timely. Timely for Leinster, timely for Ireland and timely for the player himself.
No one can point the finger at any player for wanting to maximise the return on a limited career.
Johnny Sexton did what was right for him and his move was accepted accordingly, but in the light of what could still turn into a bursting open of the transfer floodgates, O'Brien and the governing body deserve all the positive publicity they get for keeping O'Brien -- for now, at least -- in the place he is appreciated most.
And while the province this good news story impacts upon the most was first into action last night, the feelgood factor will hopefully have a ripple effect in what lies ahead on the field of battle for the other three, starting today in Allianz Park.
First up it is Connacht, and what an achievement for our so-called development province in reaching the final series of games still in contention for the Heineken Cup knockout phase.
I hate this misnomer 'development'.
Given the appropriate resources, just imagine what might be achieved by a Cinderella province every bit as important to the future welfare of Irish rugby as the other three. This is an issue worthy of development on another day as Pat Lam and his exciting squad continue to defy logic at the cutting edge of European rugby.
Can Toulouse be repeated? Of course it can. Will it? Probably not, given the potential prize on offer for Mark McCall's high-flying, highly resourced Saracens.
One thing is certain -- a Connacht side full of emerging young, by and large indigenous talent, will do themselves, their ever-growing legion of supporters and Irish rugby proud.
Indeed, if any team epitomises what the game in this part of the world stands to lose from May on it is the men from the west, that little rugby dot on the Atlantic seaboard.
I wish Darragh Leader, Rob Henshaw, Eoin Griffin, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, Denis Buckley, Mick Kearney, Jake Heenan and Eoin McKeon another Heineken Cup day to remember.
Incidentally, not one of those listed was born before 1990!
Now tell me that Connacht rugby doesn't deserve the same treatment from the powers that be as the rest.
Verdict: Connacht will give it their all but Sarries' all-round class will be enough to take it in the end.
Next up, it is the game of the weekend at Welford Road when Ulster set out to ransack the Tigers' lair.
Of the 24 teams in the Heineken Cup, only one, Ulster, boast a 100pc record going into the final round of games.
They have had many great wins on the road, with Montpellier back in October and Munster in Limerick in the 2012 quarter-final two of the most relevant.
However, given the backdrop to this clash, it is the most important in the northern province's European story to date. Logic dictates that the 2001 and 2002 champions should have what it takes on their own patch to see them through.
But this is a watershed moment for the likes of David Humphreys, Mark Anscombe and everyone involved in Ulster. It is a golden opportunity to come of age as a European superpower for this talented group of players.
Verdict: The smart money suggests another Welford Road tour de force to see the Tigers top Pool 5 but I am going against the grain and choosing heart over head with an Ulster win.
Last up for the Irish it is the team that makes this great tournament tick more than any other.
At Thomond Park tomorrow Munster look to complete their fifth 'cup final' win out of five since that Edinburgh horror show on the opening day.
The quality of last week's performance at Kingsholm has been discussed in detail so little elaboration is necessary other than to suggest more of the same.
Or to borrow from times past, an old-time Munster performance from an old-time Munster play-book.
Verdict: Edinburgh under former Ulster coach Alan Solomons will make it an uncomfortable ride at another awkward kick-off time, but Munster have come much too far and learned far too much to blow it now.
MONEY TALKS IN TOP 14 €355M DEAL
If anyone doubts the extent to which money is talking in the current ERC crisis, then look no further than the five-year agreement worth €355m signed earlier this week between Canal+ and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (Top 14).
It is a subject that will undoubtedly come up again, but with the weekend that's in it, the message is clear: enjoy what we've got while we've got it.