Despite some fears to the contrary when the IRFU suspended negotiations with the 80 or so players whose deals expired this June until the New Year, the vast bulk have been renewed with Peter O’Mahony joining Johnny Sexton and Iain Henderson in having new central contracts confirmed.
The expectation is that, ala Sexton, Cian Healy and Keith Earls will also have new one-year deals signed off, and akin to Henderson and O’Mahony, Tadhg Furlong and CJ Stander will agree two-year extensions.
It’s worth bearing in mind that O’Mahony is still only 31, and that before his current three-game suspension he had played in 34 of Ireland’s previous 39 games over the last four seasons. O’Mahony was rested for autumnal games against Fiji, Italy and the USA, as well as the Rugby World Cup warm-up games against Italy and Wales. In other words, the Munster captain has been the first-choice Irish blindside for four seasons.
“To get a central contract, if you look at the history, you show continuity at this level to be a top class international player,” said Andy Farrell yesterday.
“That’s the remit that everyone understands and that’s what we stick to, (not) just because somebody pops up and plays four or five games that’s really good as far as international rugby is concerned. It’s about consistency at this level to prove your worth, and I suppose that’s how it always was and that’s how it will continue.”
Although the main discussions have been with David Nucifora, Farrell has been part of the negotiation process with the seven players whose central contracts expired this summer and was not concerned about any of the three who thus far have agreed new deals.
“No, I wasn’t worried. I was speaking to the guys the whole time. They’re as honest as they come and I’m exactly the same with them. If there’s any uncertainty I suppose I would have been worried but I don’t think there has been. I think things have taken a little bit of time but there’s been no panic from the IRFU’s point of view or from the lads’ point of view. I think it’s all been handled very well.”
As for Farrell’s own possible involvement with the Lions this summer, after working with Warren Gatland as defence coach on the tours to Australia and New Zealand in 2013 and 2017, much will depend on whether Ireland’s prospective summer tests against Fiji, Tonga and possibly Japan goes ahead or not.
The possibility of playing those games in one country, most likely Australia, is being explored, but given the probability of the squad having to quarantine for two weeks on arrival, that tour seems more problematic than a Lions series against the Springboks going ahead in Ireland and the UK.
But it would offer some scope to blood some young players, and were it signed off, it would probably have precedence for Farrell and the IRFU, given it is two years out from a World Cup.
Whereas Eddie O’Sullivan joined Clive Woodward on the expedition to New Zealand in 2005, and left Michael Bradley and Mark McCall in charge of Ireland’s two test tour to Japan that summer, Joe Schmidt declined Gatland’s offer to be part of the 2017 tour as he wanted to oversee his Ireland team’s tour to the USA and Japan - during which Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Andrew Porter were among those blooded.
“I’ll weigh them up with the people that matter here at the IRFU,” said Farrell yesterday on the premise that both tours went ahead.
“You’ve got to ask, at the end of the day, whether you can go on both tours, you know? That decision will be out of my hands. But, at the same time, you would say that there are fors and againsts, isn’t there? On both sides.
“Having somebody on the Irish management on the Lions management, is that a benefit to our lads going? Our lads going, what type of age group are those boys that are going on that tour. Are they the next generation now for Irish rugby? What does the Irish tour look like? What does the Lions tour look like?
“There’s all sorts of things to do, that’s why I’ve said all along my only remit will be to do what’s right for Irish rugby.”
In effect therefore, Farrell’s decision is likely to be made for him, and as he suggested, most probably by the end of the month.
Meantime, with what he believes will be a full-strength squad bar O’Mahony’s suspension, there are the more pressing engagements against Scotland on Saturday week, and, six days later, England. Allowing for perfect conditions and the opponents, Ireland played with plenty of ambition in Rome last Saturday week which Farrell hopes can be replicated in Murrayfield.
“Yeah, I’ve read that, that people said we played with ambition,” noted Farrell, who nonetheless maintained: “There’s nothing that ambitious about throwing the ball over the top at a line-out, as in it would be one of the simplest line-outs that you’ve got.
“But it’s effective to get over the gain line and on the back of that we kept on getting over the gain line, so some nice, direct, punching play that’s nice and connected, and the backs finished a couple of those moves off very well.
“The game doesn’t change. It’s about navigating your way through contact so that you can get a flow into your game, and when you’ve got a flow into your game you’ve got to stay connected and keep pushing like we did. And hopefully we can be just as ambitious in Murrayfield as well.”