Opportunity to play for Ireland and longevity of career are the twin pillars on which Joe Schmidt appeals to his players to remain in the fold rather than follow the money overseas, and it seems Keith Earls and Conor Murray have been eager listeners.
In a massive boost to Munster, the Irish and Lions backs each put pen to paper on three-year IRFU contracts which will keep them at their province until the end of the 2019 World Cup.
Scrum-half Murray, 26, had hinted strongly in recent weeks staying in Ireland with Munster beyond his current contract, which expires in June, was “almost a no-brainer” but reports on Tuesday linking Earls, 28, with a big-money move to English Premiership champions Saracens had alarmed team-mates and fans in the province, where the exit of a homond Park hero would have sparked fears of a meltdown following their elimination from the Champions Cup.
“I am delighted to have signed a new IRFU contract to allow me to continue playing my rugby in Ireland and I look forward to playing my role in bringing success to both Munster and Ireland,” said Earls, who started all five World Cup games for Schmidt last autumn.
The recently announced summer departures of Ireland duo Ian Madigan and Marty Moore to Bordeaux-Begles and Wasps respectively tied to the failure of Leinster, Munster and Ulster to qualify for the European knockout stages, have prompted concerns of an “exodus” from these shores with players lured by huge pay increases.
Ireland head coach Schmidt disputed the use of the word exodus as he met the media for the first time since his side’s World Cup quarter-final exit to Argentina last October at yesterday’s RBS 6 Nations launch in London but he admitted the IRFU had to offer their homegrown players incentives other than financial benefits for them to stay.
Speaking before news of Earls’s central contract agreement was announced, the Ireland boss said he had been in a dialogue with Earls and referenced Leinster prop Moore’s decision to leave for England after last-ditch efforts to keep him were unsuccessful.
“When Keith’s in camp, we do chat about things and I think one of the players who’s gone recently has genuine regret,” Schmidt said. “But once you’ve made the decision and you’ve committed with your name on the paper there’s no going back; that’s the way the world works.
“The word ‘exodus’ has been bandied around in some of the media and by the very definition of the word it’s a mass movement of population and I don’t really see that happening. We’re always trying to keep our players. They don’t become unavailable to us, but they become less accessible to us. Therefore, we’re always going to defer to the guys who are inside the country.
“For me, people’s heads are being turned by more money. I could tell you some amounts. I don’t know all the amounts, I try and stay out of it. I talk to players on an opportunity basis, on playing for Ireland, on a longevity of their career, because they will get better looked after in Ireland than most other places because they will get well managed in between their Ireland and provincial commitments. Those are things I talk about with them.”
Earls and Murray’s decisions to stay at home will be appreciated all the more for their recognition of the values and benefits Schmidt cited rather the cheque book being dangled in front of them elsewhere and the head coach added: “There are guys giving up good sums of money to stay where they are, to play for their country and play for their province and I think it’s one of the fantastic things that is still slightly amateur about rugby that people still follow their hearts a little bit, not just their bank balance.
“I’d like to think we also add value and that they also know they’re going to be looked after. There’s more to making a decision about taking a contract or not... there’s more to it than that retainer value. There are some other advantages in staying in Ireland, whether they be player management, whether they be playing with the guys you grew up playing with and you feel a sense of identity with and therefore you want to play with.”
Now it was incumbent on Ireland and the provinces to repay the faith shown in them by giving their players to platform to succeed.
“One of the real disadvantages of not having a (Champions Cup) qualifier — and I’m positive we’ll have at least one, two or hopefully three qualifiers in the European Cup next year in that top eight — is these players are competitive people, they want to win things. I’m desperately keen for the provinces to be as competitive as they can be because players come into camp more upbeat, it’s easier to keep players in a place where they feel they have a chance of winning things because there’s a feelgood factor when you’re a competitive person and a non-tangible factor that’s not necessarily money.”
Speaking of his new deal Murray said: “Having come through the Munster Academy it was a special moment when I made my Munster debut in 2010, and to go on to represent Ireland is every young player’s dream. I look forward to pulling on the Munsterand Ireland jerseys in years to come.”
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