Retaining Irish stars a ‘huge statement’

Jamie Heaslip: Signed a three-year deal to remain at Leinster.
Jamie Heaslip: Signed a three-year deal to remain at Leinster.

Leinster CEO Mick Dawson described the retention yesterday of Jamie Heaslip and that of Sean O’Brien last week as a “huge statement” in the battle to keep the best Irish players at home with the provinces.

Heaslip signed a three-year deal to remain at Leinster, while O’Brien inked a two-year contract, despite both being chased by a number of French clubs.

Unlike last year, Ireland can now begin their Six Nations campaign unhindered by contract speculation, even if the news was tempered by confirmation Keith Earls will miss the tournament with medial ligament damage suffered against Edinburgh with Munster last Sunday.

Heaslip re-signing is all the more notable for the fact Toulon are believed to have upped the potential salary on offer to the Ireland vice-captain in the wake of O’Brien’s decision to remain in Dublin. And the news also comes on the back of a spate of other signings with Earls, Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan and Rory Best all deciding to play their club rugby in Ireland.

“It’s a huge statement,” Dawson told the Irish Examiner. “From our point of view, these are two guys who are homegrown, Academy players who have gone on to play internationally and with the Lions. They are integral to what we are doing at Leinster.”

The ability to keep Heaslip and O’Brien in Ireland count as major coups for the IRFU in light of the loss to Racing Metro 92 this time 12 months ago of Jonathan Sexton which was expected to have major repercussions down the line.

For years Irish players flirted with Top 14 clubs only to remain faithful, leading to the belief among clubs on the continent they were being used as mere bargaining tools in a bid to drive up the IRFU’s wage offers.

The worry was that Sexton’s departure would change all that, but recent events have moved the goalposts back in the IRFU’s favour even if Dawson doesn’t believe it will scare French suitors off for good.

“I would be reluctant to say that. If players were just to look at the money on offer from France they would all go to France, so it says a lot about the systems and the environment the IRFU and we at Leinster have in place.”

Heaslip’s retention was accompanied by quotes from the IRFU, Leinster and the player himself which were peppered with phrases about ‘driving for success’ with the province and ‘competing for silverware’.

News Leigh Halfpenny will sign for Toulon this summer further emphasised the success the union here has had with the Welshman describing the move as “the best decision for me and my continued development as a rugby player and as a person”. Few could dispute his motives given the Civil War engulfing the game across the Irish Sea and the poor results the regions have habitually offered up.

Only Gordon D’Arcy remains of Ireland’s front-line players yet to commit to a province beyond the summer, but he has declared his determination to finish his career with Leinster.

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