Jamie Heaslip could be set to turn his back on a lucrative move to French Top 14 club Toulon and sign a new contract with the IRFU that will keep the Ireland and Lions number 8 at Leinster.
Speculation is mounting in France that Heineken Cup champions Toulon, who face Leinster in the quarter-finals of this season’s competition in April, will lose out on a second Irish international in the space of a week following the decision by Heaslip’s provincial, international and Lions team-mate Seán O’Brien to sign up for a new two-year contract with the IRFU.
That deal will keep the 26-year-old ‘Tullow Tank’, currently facing a long spell on the sidelines due to a shoulder injury, at Leinster until at least the summer of 2016 and reports from France suggest 30-year-old Heaslip may sign a similar deal.
If that happens and Heaslip throws his lot in with his home province for another two-year stretch, it will bring to an end a long-running saga involving two of Irish rugby’s most bankable assets.
Both Heaslip and O’Brien were expected to follow the example of Test team-mate Johnny Sexton, who quit Leinster last summer and moved to France by signing a two-year deal with Racing Metro. That move followed protracted and eventually acrimonious talks between the Sexton camp and the IRFU, who appear to have learned from the mistakes of those negotiations entering into this season’s round of contract discussions.
The expected exodus of Ireland’s best players has not materialised with O’Brien, Munster’s Conor Murray and Donnacha Ryan and Ulster’s Rory Best among the elite players choosing to remain within the governing body’s player welfare management programme by signing new IRFU deals and deciding against transfers overseas.
Ireland captain Paul O’Connell and his Munster colleague Keith Earls are still to put pen to paper and could, potentially, fly the nest but if Heaslip signs on with the IRFU it would represent a significant boost for Irish rugby heading into the 2014 Six Nations campaign.
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