Andy Farrell is confident of more good news on the contract front after the signings to new deals this week of both Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony.
Sexton has committed through to the summer of 2023 with O’Mahony agreeing a two-year package that spans another 12 months and this follows on from another two-year deal agreed and announced last week for Iain Henderson.
Another four of the IRFU’s centrally contracted stars who were due to be out of contract this summer have yet to have new arrangements confirmed publicly but Farrell and the union have always been positive about getting their men.
It would be a major boost were Keith Earls, Cian Healy, CJ Stander and Tadhg Furlong all to be tied up but Farrell maintains he was never worried about negotiations in light of Covid and related financial pressures.
“I was speaking to the guys the whole time,” said the Ireland head coach whose trimmed-down squad is in the midst of a two-day mini-camp. “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.
The Six Nations win against Italy last Saturday demonstrated that there are players making a play for a greater say at Test level and, with that, stronger cases down the line when their own employment situations come up for renegotiation.
The number of central contracts has been whittled down in recent years so making the top pay grade isn’t easy and the criteria for earning one of these golden tickets hasn’t changed.
“Well, to get a central contract, if you look at the history, you show continuity at this level to be a top-class international player,” Farrell explained. “That’s the remit that everyone understands and that’s what we see to.
“Just because somebody pops up and plays four or five games that are really good… As far as international rugby is concerned it’s about consistency at this level to prove your worth.
“I suppose that’s how we’ve always worked and how we’ll continue to.”
This is very much in line with David Nucifora’s thinking. The IRFU’s performance director spoke back in December about how age isn’t a factor when it comes to these things and particular mention was made of Sexton at that time.
The former world player of the year will be pushing 37 by the time this latest extension expires and the player’s musings last week on whether or not he will make the full 2023 World Cup cycle will continue to frame the squad as it evolves.
Joey Carbery’s return to the field of play with Munster has dialled down the angst over the No.10 debate for now but the fact stands that Ireland’s short-to-medium-term strategy in the position is dependent on a veteran who may not make France in two years’ time.
Only six of Carbery’s 22 caps to date have come as the starting out-half. His only start in the slot against top-calibre opposition was against Australia in the summer of 2018. Ross Byrne, Billy Burns and Jack Carty are even less experienced.
A point has to come soon where Ireland stick or twist at 10.
“Well, it only has to be about form and it always has been,” Farrell explained.
“If Johnny can stay healthy and fit and keep fighting on all fronts and staking a claim to warrant be number one then he’s doing something superbly well.
“We’ve obviously got to be aware of the different scenarios along the way and if we keep talking, keep being honest with each other, and keep making sure we put the team first, at the front of all that… So I don’t see that changing.
“That’s how it always has been anyway and that’s how it will stay.”
The pecking order within the squad is emphasised again this week with only 23 players retained for the two-day get-together and the rest farmed back out to the provinces for a pair of interpro derbies tonight and tomorrow.
Farrell has described these games as “a real judge of character” for those swapping national duties for provincial roles while, of those afforded the weekend off, all are expected to be fully fit for training next week and ahead of the trip to Murrayfield.
This includes Conor Murray who is still going through some protocols after his hamstring injury.