Keith Earls believed to have agreed new one-year deal to remain at Munster

Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy also offered new one-year contracts with IRFU

Keith Earls is believed to have agreed a new one-year deal with the IRFU to remain with Munster for at least another season and others among the seven Irish international players whose central contracts expire this summer are also close to completing their negotiations.

Like Earls (33), Johnny Sexton (35) and Cian Healy (33) have also been offered new one-year contracts, while Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Furlong are in the throes of negotiating new two-year deals.

It is understood that negotiations with Sexton are all but completed, with an announcement expected soon. Healy, O’Mahony and Henderson are all close to being signed off as well, and the expectation is that Furlong and Stander will follow suit.

Although IRFU performance director David Nucifora is still based in Australia, having returned to his homeland in December, and despite the time difference between the two countries, the various negotiations appear to have been progressing relatively smoothly.

As a rule, the reductions in salaries are in line with new provincial deals for players whose contracts expire at the end of June, and are believed to range from 10 to 20 per cent. A few provincial contracts have still to be renewed, or in some cases new deals have yet to be offered. Yet despite the heavy financial losses suffered by the IRFU during the pandemic, which prompted the union to delay all new contract negotiations with an estimated 80 to 90 players until the turn of the year, insiders say the vast majority have been completed.

Negotiating contracts

This, needless to say, is the toughest season for players and agents in many years to be negotiating new contracts and, with the game globally on its knees financially, marks the first downward turn in salaries since the game went professional.

Pretty much all clubs in the Premiership and Top 14 have had to drastically reduce their budgets as well. Furthermore, French club rugby is no longer the land of milk and honey it used to be given the increased threshold for JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation), which obliges Top 14 clubs to have 19 JIFF players in their 35-strong squads, and must select at least 14 in their match-day squads, or face points’ deductions.

To meet the JIFF criteria, a player must have spent at least three seasons in a French club's academy before they'd turned 21, or had been licensed to play in France for five seasons before the age of 23.

Although he is Ireland’s second highest try scorer of all time with 32 tries in 90 tests, behind Brian O’Driscoll, Earls has been surviving on slim pickings this season, last Sunday’s 15-13 defeat by France being a case in point.

A local boy from Moyross and a product of the Munster academy, Earls made his debut for the province shortly after being part of the Irish Under-20 Six Nations Grand Slam against the Ospreys in April 2007, and was an unused replacement in the province's 2008 Heineken Cup final win over Toulouse in Cardiff.

He has scored 57 tries in 177 games for Munster and, although he came close to joining Saracens in 2016, now looks set to finish his career with his home province.

The same may yet be true of the Munster captain, with O’Mahony’s new two-year deal very close to being completed, according to sources.

France defeat

It's also clear that the fire still burns inside Sexton, and that the IRFU were quick to offer him a new one-year contract once negotiations started. Akin to good judges such as Ronan O'Gara and O'Driscoll, Nucifora and Andy Farrell recognise that the 35-year-old is still the best outhalf in the country, and his new contract is expected be signed before the Six Nations game in Rome on Saturday week.

In the aftermath of the defeat by France last Sunday, Farrell also strongly intimated that Sexton will return to captain Ireland and will be reunited at half-back with Conor Murray for their 66th start together at international level (including two Tests with the Lions). This is second only to the international half-back record held by George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, who started 78 Tests together for the Wallabies.

As for Stander, he had been linked with a move to Bordeaux/Begles, but French sources indicated that the club were more interested in signing the 82-times capped 34-year-old Louis Picamoles from Montpellier at the end of this season, and that has since been widely reported in the French media.