RUGBY:Munster have fended off the covetous advances of Toulouse to secure Simon Zebo with a three-year contract extension, and having also confirmed new two-year deals for eight more players yesterday with another four pending, they will sit down with Ronan O'Gara and Doug Howlett after the conclusion of the Heineken Cup pool stages later this month.
All told, it is understood almost 20 of Munster’s squad are out of contract at the end of the season, and in addition to the nine deals announced yesterday, Munster hope to tie up Stephen Archer, Ian Keatley, Felix Jones and Damien Varleyin in the next week.
“There’s no decision on anyone leaving yet at the end of the season,” confirmed Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald. Of the Heineken Cup-winning veterans, Paul O’Connell and Donnacha O’Callaghan are under contract until 2014, whereas O’Gara and Howlett are out of contract at the end of this season.
“They are people we have categorised really for after round six of the Heineken Cup, when we will just review the situation,” said Fitzgerald. “We have spoken to them and they’re aware of that. We haven’t even entered into discussions and they’re aware they’re not going to be dealt with until after round six of the Heineken Cup.”
Three players currently on Development contracts, 20-year- old JJ Hanrahan and 22-year-olds Dave O’Callaghan and Luke O’Dea have signed their first full-time contracts to keep them with Munster until the end of the 2014/’15 season.
Hanrahan was the star turn in last summer’s Irish Under-20 World Cup campaign; O’Callaghan is a two-time Irish Under-20 World Cup player whose athleticism and ability has seen his graph rise this season, and O’Dea is pacey, has good feet and “great natural ability”, according to Fitzgerald, who forecasts that “Luke will be a player who people will see a lot more of in the future”.
Number eight James Coughlan, who won his 100th cap against Saracens, hooker Mike Sherry, lock Dave Foley and backrow Paddy Butler are the others who have committed their immediate futures to Munster, while Sean Dougall, in his first season with them, has also agreed a two-year extension.
“Some of them were certainly being looked at from other areas, but they have all committed to Munster.They seem to be enjoying what they’re doing and they seem to see a future here for themselves, so I think that’s all positive.”
Toulouse are believed to have made soundings about Zebo, and as something of a poster boy for Munster’s new generation, the Cork 22-year-old’s retention until the end of the 2015/’16 season is a coup, even if hardly a surprising one. This is all the more so given he has agreed a provincial contract with Munster in the absence of an international contract from the IRFU.
“Simon has done exceptionally well and probably excelled beyond where we thought he would be at this stage,” admitted Fitzgerald. “He’s got a few breaks and he’s taken them. He seems to have a very good temperament regardless of the location of the game he’s playing in.
“I think Simon was quite happy to commit to a three-year deal. They weren’t very difficult negotiations, even though he had interest from outside of Ireland and outside of the UK, and I think he will be very important for Munster, particularly on the field, and off the field as well,” added the Munster CEO.
“He has a very good personality. He brings a lot to the supporters and the way he plays the game, he’s bound to attract more attention. He plays in a wide position, loves to run with the ball, gets on the ball frequently around the field and seems to enjoy doing it, and he has scored a couple of spectacular tries.
“But Simon is also a very level-headed young lad and is a very good team player and only interested in doing what’s best for the team. Simon is at a very early stage of his development. He’s playing exceptionally well but if he continues to work hard I think he will improve much more as a player. He has a lot more in him and I think he can fine tune a lot of areas in his game to become a really, really good player in the future.”
Most capped player
O’Gara will become Munster’s most capped player against the Cardiff Blues in Musgrave Park tomorrow when he will win his 234th competitive cap for the province. Rob Penney makes 11 changes to the side which beat Ulster last weekend, with Howlett, centre James Downey, scrumhalf Conor Murray and flanker Tommy O’Donnell retaining their places.
A week ahead of their critical Heineken Cup pool games away to Edinburgh and at home to Racing Metro, Keith Earls returns from injury to partner Downey in the centre, while the fit-again CJ Stander is named on the bench.
One of the common factors for those players who have resigned is the size and support of the crowds at matches, which rarely if ever dip below 6-7,000 for Pro12 games at Musgrave Park or 27,000 capacity crowds at Thomond Park for some games.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett capt, K Earls, J Downey, J Murphy; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, S Archer; D Foley, D Ryan; T O’Donnell, S Dougall, J Coughlan. Replacements: S Henry, W du Preez, BJ Botha, B Holland, CJ Stander, D Williams, I Keatley, C Laulala.
Munster contract situation
Simon Zebo(22): Has signed a new three-year provincial contract until the end of the 2015/'16 season.
JJ Hanrahan(20) : Has been upgraded from a development contract to a two-year professional contract until the 2014/'15 season.
Dave O'Callaghan(22): Upgraded from a development contract to a two-year professional contract until the 2014/'15 season.
Luke O'Dea(22): Upgraded from a development contract to a two-year professional contract until the 2014/'15 season.
James Coughlan(32): Has signed a new two-year deal to remain with Munster until 2015.
Mike Sherry(24): Having become first-choice hooker of late, has signed a new two-year deal to remain with the province until 2015.
Dave Foley(24): The talented young lock has also signed on for another two seasons.
Paddy Butler(22): Has more than doubled his number of appearances this season to earn another two-year deal.
Sean Dougall(23): The Ulster Academy product has quickly earned a two-year extension after arriving from Rotherham last summer.
Ronan O'Gara(35): Out of contract at end of season, and talks to begin after Heineken round six, but sure to be offered an extension, whether an international or provincial contract.
Doug Howlett(34): Out of contract at the end of the season, the Munster captain and All Blacks record try scorer is, pending the IRFU's approval, likely to be offered an extension.
Paul O'Connell(33): Under contract until the end of the 2013/'14 season.
Donncha O'Callaghan(33): Under contract until the end of the 2013/'14 season.
– GERRY THORNLEY